SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea has invited the U.S. envoy overseeing ties with the prickly state to visit for nuclear talks next month, South Korean media said on Tuesday, as the United States pushes sanctions against Pyongyang.
Reclusive North Korea, which has made a series of rare conciliatory gestures this month, also agreed to hold talks with South Korea from Wednesday on resuming reunions of families separated by the 1950-1953 Korean War.
Pyongyang stopped the reunions almost two years ago in anger at the hard-line policies of the South’s conservative government, which halted unconditional aid handouts and linked its largess to the North ending its nuclear arms ambitions.
Analysts say the North may be softening its tone with Washington and Seoul in an attempt to ease pressure on its coffers, depleted by U.N. sanctions for its nuclear test in May and facing the threat of a poor harvest.
U.S. envoy Stephen Bosworth would lead a delegation first traveling 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.
Bosworth is expected to visit Asia “in the not too distant future,” said U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly, but he said there were no plans now for him to visit Pyongyang. He declined to say whether the North had extended an invitation.
Kelly at one point said the United States would not hold talks with North Korea until Pyongyang agreed to resume six-party talks. He later said this was not a precondition.
U.S. LIKELY TO AGREE TO MEETING - ANALYSTS
Analysts said Washington had little choice but to send Bosworth to Pyongyang if only to test whether the North may be ready to resume talks on ending its nuclear programs.
Jack Pritchard, a former U.S. negotiator with Pyongyang and now president of the Korea Economic Institute, said he did not believe the North was ready to resume denuclearisation talks, but he still expected Bosworth to travel to Pyongyang.
“I don’t think that we can afford to say ‘no’ to the North Koreans when the demand is simply to allow Bosworth to go,” he said.
Mitchell Reiss, a former U.S. official who has dealt with the North, said a visit might be necessary to win support from other nations for implementing tighter sanctions on the North.
Philip Goldberg, the U.S. coordinator for U.N. sanctions on North Korea, has been in Asia to seek support for measures aimed at stamping out the North’s arms trade, which analysts say brings in hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
“If the price of sanctions is a meeting, then by all means Ambassador Bosworth should go to Pyongyang,” he said.
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 U.S. journalists.
U.S. officials have repeatedly said 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 United States.
Officials from the two biggest U.S. military allies in the region, Japan and South Korea, have said they would go along with direct U.S.-North Korean talks as long as Washington coordinates and consults with them.
The six-party talks, hosted by the North’s biggest benefactor China, broke down at the end of last year with Pyongyang saying the format was dead.
REACHING OUT TO SEOUL
North Korea had 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 had his first chance to directly tell North Korean officials of his policy on Sunday when he met a delegation that had flown to Seoul to mourn the death of former President Kim Dae-jung, who was buried the same day.
Under Lee’s 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 will give up dreams of having its own atomic weapons. Experts said Pyongyang’s moves were a switch in tactics rather than a change of heart.
Additional reporting by Christine Kim and by Arshad Mohammed in Washington; editing by Jonathan Thatcher, Dean Yates, Mohammad Zargham and Xavier Briand
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