SEOUL The U.S. envoy for North Korea policy said on Tuesday he hoped serious negotiations over Pyongyang's nuclear programme could start soon, signaling a diplomatic push after a surge in tension.
The comments by Stephen Bosworth as he arrived in South Korea suggested a new impetus to negotiate an end to the North's atomic ambitions, but a breakthrough may be elusive as the parties seek proof the North is serious about disarming.
Tension on the Korean peninsula reached some of its highest levels since the 1950-53 Korean War over the past year after the sinking of a South Korean ship killing 46 sailors, an exchange of artillery fire, nuclear revelations and threats of war.
"We believe that serious negotiations must be at the heart of any strategy for dealing with North Korea and we look forward to being able to launch those at a reasonably early time," Bosworth said.
North Korea has tested nuclear devices twice in recent years and has threatened to use such weapons although it has not shown it has a deliverable atomic bomb.
Bosworth will meet South Korean Foreign Ministry officials on Wednesday before heading to China and Japan for more consultations on North Korea this week. The U.S. envoy for nuclear talks with North Korea, Sung Kim, is with him.
Rhetorical sparring has continued but in recent days the South and the North have suggested they are willing to talk although analysts say chances of a breakthrough are slim.
China, the North's only major ally, repeated a call for resumption of so-called six-party talks, that include the two Koreas, Japan, Russia and the United States, and said the situation on the peninsula was sensitive and complex.
"DISASTER AND RETROGRESSION"
South Korea and the United States have said they want to see proof of North Korea's commitment to a negotiated settlement before they head back into talks. The South says a good start would be for the North to implement previous pledges.
Moon Jung-in, a politics professor at Seoul's Yonsei University, said South Korea's only real option was to enter dialogue after its "hawkish" stance on the North had failed.
"The hard-line diplomatic strategy has resulted in disaster and retrogression," he wrote in Seoul's JoongAng Daily.
Cash-strapped North Korea appears to want to return to the talks, where it has won substantial aid in the past after ratcheting up tension. The six-way process has been stalled for more than two years since Pyongyang walked out.
Bosworth indicated that he was not in Asia to unveil a U.S. plan to get the North back to negotiations, but said he hoped to compile views with the aim of getting talks restarted.
"We are here primarily to consult and coordinate. I expect to do more listening than talking," he said.
The United States, which has some 28,000 troops in South Korea, is urging Beijing to rein in North Korea. The Chinese and U.S. presidents will meet in Washington this month.
"We've been working together with (China) very effectively ... I think we share a large number of common interests around the world and in the region and particularly, on the Korean peninsula," Bosworth said.
Japan was aiming for direct talks with North Korea this year over nuclear issues and North Korea's abduction of Japanese nationals, Japan's foreign minister said.
Japan's defense chief will also meet with his South Korean counterpart in Seoul next week to discuss boosting military ties in the wake of the raised hostilities on the Korean peninsula.
"North Korea's nuclear programme and the attack on Yeonpyeong will also be raised," a South Korean official said.
The North shelled the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong in November killing four people and sparking threats of war from both sides.
The crisis rattled global markets but concerns have started to wane. A South Korean central banker said on Tuesday the effect on markets had eased markedly.
(Additional reporting by Sylvia Westall in Seoul, Yoko Kubota in Tokyo and Huang Yan in Beijing; Editing by Robert Birsel)