North Korea has invited the US envoy overseeing relations with the reclusive state to visit for nuclear talks next month, South Korean media said, the latest in a recent series of conciliatory gestures.
In another sign it is ready to take the chill out of relations, the North agreed to talks tomorrow between Red Cross societies from either side of their heavily armed border to resume reunions of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.
Pyongyang stopped the reunions almost two years ago in anger at the hardline policies of the South’s conservative government, Reuters reports.
Analysts say the North may be softening its tone with US and South Korean adversaries in an attempt to ease pressure on its coffers, depleted by UN sanctions for its nuclear test in May and facing the threat of a poor harvest.
US envoy Stephen Bosworth would lead a delegation first travelling to South Korea, China and Japan to discuss stalled six-way disarmament-for-aid talks with the North before heading to Pyongyang, the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper said, citing a senior diplomatic source in Washington.
It would mark the first official nuclear talks between North Korea and the Obama administration.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency quoted a diplomatic source in Washington as saying the North extended the invitation when former President Bill Clinton visited Pyongyang this month to win the release of two jailed US journalists.
US embassy officials in Seoul, where Bosworth was this week, would not comment on the reports.
US officials have said separately they are willing to hold direct talks with North Korea but only as part of six-country disarmament negotiations involving the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the US.
The six-party talks, hosted by the North’s biggest benefactor China, broke down at the end of last year with Pyongyang saying it sees the format as dead.
Reaching out to Seoul
Philip Goldberg, the US coordinator for the UN sanctions on North Korea, has been in Asia in the past week to seek support for the punishments aimed at stamping out the North’s arms trade, which analysts say provides it with hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
The North’s vital agriculture sector has also taken a blow this year by flooding that hurt farmland and could bring more harm to its wobbly economy.
The latest gestures by the impoverished state have made little impact on South Korea’s financial markets, long used to sharp changes in the North’s diplomacy and which continue to weigh as a background risk for Asia’s fourth largest economy.
North Korea has all but severed ties with the South after President Lee Myung-bak took office in February 2008 and ended the steady flow of unconditional aid.
Lee last week had his first chance to directly tell North Korean officials of his policy when he met a delegation that had flown to Seoul to mourn the death of former President Kim Dae-jung, who was buried last week.
Under his proposals, the South would pour investment into the North to rebuild its decayed infrastructure and lift the population out of abject poverty in return for Pyongyang giving up efforts to build a nuclear arsenal.
But few believe the North is ready to give up dreams of having its own atomic weapons and experts said the moves by Pyongyang represent a switch in tactics rather than any change of heart, warning Washington not to relent on sanctions yet.
Pic: Nuclear blast