South Korea says open to calls for six-party talks

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea is open to calls for resuming international talks aimed at ending North Korea’s nuclear arms program if Pyongyang pledges to honor a 2005 deal, a senior official was quoted as saying on Wednesday.

The unidentified Foreign Ministry official, speaking to domestic media, did not specifically link a resumption of six-party talks to the North conceding it had sunk a South Korean navy ship, signaling a possible softening of a hardline demand by Seoul.

South Korea has previously said the North must admit responsibility for sinking its ship in March and take “sincere measures” concerning the incident before it returned to the talks that have been stalled for two years.

“If North Korea shows sincerity and makes a verbal pledge to implement nuclear disablement steps equivalent to 750,000 metric tons of heavy fuel oil it had received from the international community, we can accept the resumption of the six-way talks,” the official was quoted as saying by Yonhap news agency.

North Korea had been given the fuel oil as initial compensation for steps it had taken through 2008 to freeze its nuclear activities, which it had since called irrelevant.

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“It must also allow the return of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors or declare moratorium on its nuclear facilities,” the official was quoted as saying.

The ministry could not confirm the official’s reported comments but said they did not mark a departure from Seoul’s position that it rested on the North to show it was sincere about disarmament and peace on the Korean peninsula.

Under a landmark deal reached by the two Koreas, the United States, Japan, Russia and China, the North agreed to abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and return to the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).

In a subsequent accord on implementing that deal, the North agreed to shut down and seal its nuclear facilities and invite international inspectors to oversee disarmament steps.

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The North was offered economic aid in return for those steps, including an initial shipment of 1 million metric tons of heavy fuel oil.

Two years ago, North Korea walked away from the six-way talks which had begun in 2003, saying it would not deal with the United States which was intent on undermining its leadership.

But in an about-turn, the North said in July that it was willing to return to dialogue, and China, which hosted the forum, had been working behind the scenes for a resumption.

Analysts said the North was being squeezed hard under U.N. sanctions imposed after its defiant nuclear and missile tests last year that deepened its economic woes, and may be trying to return to the six-way talks which had promised to be a source of lucrative aid.

Reporting by Jack Kim; Editing by Robert Birsel