US, N Korea hold informal talks in Singapore

US, N Korea hold informal talks in Singapore

SINGAPORE - American and North Korean representatives began informal talks at the weekend in Singapore that are slated to cover Pyongyang's nuclear programme, among other issues.

The meeting is expected to end today after which, The Straits Times understands, the US delegation may speak to the media.

The Singapore meeting comes shortly after Washington rejected Pyongyang's offer to temporarily suspend its nuclear activities in exchange for the United States withdrawing an upcoming military exercise with South Korea in March.

Mr Leon Sigal, an expert on North Korea who is part of the US delegation, was quoted as saying yesterday that the meeting allows both sides to take "each other's temperature".

Others in the team include former US special envoy for North Korea policy Stephen Bosworth, former nuclear negotiator Joseph DeTrani and Korean-American scholar Tony Namkung.

The North Korean team is led by Mr Ri Yong Ho, Vice-Foreign Minister and chief negotiator for the so-called six-party talks involving the two Koreas, the US, China, Japan and Russia.

The denuclearisation talks have stalled since 2008, but Pyongyang has held several informal meetings with US experts in recent years. The last meeting before the one in Singapore took place in Mongolia in May last year.

That meeting discussed the resumption of the six-party talks, South Korea's Yonhap agency reported.

Mr Namkung told Foreign Policy magazine last Friday that North Korea has been "remarkably forthcoming about their willingness to dismantle their nuclear programme lock, stock and barrel", but the problem is that "both sides to a dispute want the other side to move first".

The US and North Korea do not have formal diplomatic ties.

Washington has accused the Kim Jong Un regime of launching a cyber attack against Sony Pictures last November over the controversial comedy, The Interview, a charge that Pyongyang denies.

The hacking issue is not likely to be broached in Singapore, according to Mr Sigal.

The two-day informal meeting is considered "Track 2" diplomacy, which means there is no government-to-government contact.

The US Embassy in Singapore in a statement would say only that the US government is "not involved" in the talks, and that it is "one of many Track 2 meet- ings held to discuss East Asia political and security issues".

In 2008, Singapore was also the venue for nuclear talks between then US nuclear envoy Christopher Hill and his North Korean counterpart Kim Kye Gwan.

Associate research fellow Sarah Teo from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said Singapore "happens to be an agreeable venue to both parties, given that we have good relations with both sides". Pyongyang also has a mission here.

Ms Teo added that the meeting would be "largely exploratory", for both sides to discuss ideas without it being official.

This article was first published on Jan 19, 2015.
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