South Korean envoy downbeat on nuclear talks

SEOUL Fri Jul 29, 2011 2:42am EDT

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea's nuclear envoy said on Friday it would be very difficult to persuade North Korea to give up its atomic program, and that a flurry of diplomacy aimed at restarting nuclear talks was unlikely to produce major breakthroughs.

Nuclear envoys from the two Koreas met for the first time in two years last week and a top North Korean diplomat is in New York for talks, raising hopes for a resumption of denuclearization dialogue after a more than two-year hiatus.

"We are not optimistic for six-party talks as it was, and as it is," the South's envoy Wi Sung-lac told a small group of foreign correspondents in Seoul.

The six-party talks -- which also involve China, Japan, Russia and the United States -- offer North Korea economic and energy aid and diplomatic relations with the United States and Japan in return for scrapping its nuclear program.

Most analysts say the North is unlikely to give up its nuclear program, saying an atomic bomb is both the ideal deterrent and the ultimate bargaining chip.

Wi conceded it would be tough to persuade the North to give up its nuclear plans, which ballooned last year with the unveiling of a uranium enrichment facility to go with its plutonium program.

"I don't believe North Korea will easily give up nuclear weapons ... but I don't give up hope. We will make them give up (nuclear weapons)," he said. "It may be a long and winding road."

Wi said the start of bilateral dialogue should be seen as a bridge-building process.

He said he had outlined the three-stage of process to get six-party talks restarted to his counterpart from the North, Ri Yong-ho, last week. The first stage is inter-Korean talks, the second is U.S.-North Korea talks, and third is six-party talks.

"Their reaction was rather negative," said Wi, adding that Ri argued six-party talks should be reconvened immediately and that North-South dialogue should take place within that framework.

Seoul and Washington insist on productive bilateral talks with the North first, and say that Pyongyang must take concrete action to show it is sincere about denuclearizing.

"We won't go to six-party talks until we see a suspension of the Yongbyon (nuclear) program," he said of the North's main nuclear complex, where there are both uranium and plutonium facilities.

Wi said the North must allow international nuclear inspectors to have full access to the site to verify any pledges to denuclearize. The North expelled the inspectors in 2009 when the six-party talks broke down.

North Korean nuclear negotiator Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan completed a first day of "exploratory talks" with U.S. special envoy for North Korea Stephen Bosworth in New York on Thursday. They are due to meet again on Friday.

"I don't expect anything surprising coming from the New York. It's just the beginning," said Wi.

(Editing by Robert Birsel)

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