NUSA DUA, Indonesia (Reuters) - South and North Korea held high-level talks for the first time in two years in Indonesia on Friday, and said they would work to resume the stalled six-party dialogue for nuclear disarmament on the Korean peninsula.
The surprise meeting between their nuclear envoys, which was described as cordial and lasted about two hours, was the first such contact between the two Koreas since the last round of the six-way nuclear disarmament talks in 2008.
It is also a step forward in the diplomatic effort to resume those negotiations since the United States and Japan, also participants in the six-party dialogue, have said South Korea and the nuclear-capable North must first establish some rapport.
“We agreed to continue to make joint efforts in the process of negotiations for denuclearization,” South Korean nuclear envoy Wi Sung-lac told reporters after the talks on the sidelines of an Asian security conference on the island of Bali.
“We agreed to make joint efforts to set conditions to resume the six-party talks as soon as possible. I had very constructive and useful conversations with my counterpart.”
Ri Yong-ho, North Korea’s vice foreign minister who handles nuclear diplomacy, was smiling as he said: “(We) met as part of efforts to resume six-party talks as soon as possible.”
South Korea, the United States and China, which hosts the six-way forum, have agreed on a three-stage process for envoys from Seoul, Pyongyang and Washington to meet first before the negotiations can resume. Japan and Russia make up the rest of the participants.
North Korea walked away from the six-way nuclear talks more than two years ago, but last year called for their resumption.
A U.S. official said the United States had asked China, North Korea’s only major ally, to put pressure on the reclusive state to come to the negotiating table.
“We on our part, with the Chinese, indicated that it was imperative that they communicate directly to North Korea that they take this opportunity for diplomacy and not contemplate further provocative acts,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Asked what the U.S. response to the North-South meeting was, the official said Washington had not yet been briefed on what transpired.
“We think its an important step that they met today, but we don’t know what the result of the meeting was. The fact that they met in a high profile setting ... as opposed to in some secret setting probably has some significance.
“There’s no determination to rush into anything. When you deal with the North Koreans, understanding the importance of patience is clearly a virtue in this respect. We’ve been down this road so many times before, and so we want to be careful that we know what the road is.”
Other nations at the security forum also welcomed the move.
“The trust deficit between the two Koreas was such that any communication at any stage is good and positive progress,” said Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa of host nation Indonesia.
Japan said renewed talks were important for Asia.
“North Korea is a destabilizing factor in the region,” Satoru Satoh, Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman, told reporters.
He said the international community needed to remain engaged with Pyongyang but added: “The North-South dialogue should move forward before the six-party talks.”
“We are not satisfied with dialogue for the sake of dialogue,” he added. “There should be progress.”
Tensions rose to the highest level in years when a South Korean navy ship was sunk last year in a torpedo attack, killing 46 sailors. South Korea blamed the North, but Pyongyang denied any role. The North shelled a South Korean island in November.
South Korea has demanded some expression of regret from Pyongyang about the attacks as indication that the North is serious about reducing tensions and working to bring stability to the Korean peninsula.
North Korea’s two nuclear tests in the past five years rattled the region. They triggered international sanctions against Pyongyang believed to be squeezing its already troubled economy by cutting off a lucrative arms trade.
Additional reporting by Andrew Quinn and Jack Kim in Seoul; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Alex Richardson