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International relations

Kim Jong Un offers to return to six-party talks

North Korean leader dangled concession to arrange meeting with Xi Jinping

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Chinese President Xi Jinping at a dinner party in Beijing on March 26, 2018 © KCNA/Kyodo

BEIJING -- North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un told Chinese President Xi Jinping that his country was willing to rejoin the "six-party talks" to discuss denuclearization when the two met last month in China, Nikkei has learned.

Sources said that the summit in March was initiated by the North Korean side. Agreeing to the six-party talks -- to which China had repeatedly insisted North Korea return -- was a concession Kim made to improve ties with Beijing and pave the way for the meeting with Xi.

Kim also may express such intentions at his summit with U.S. President Donald Trump planned for May, sources said.

But the U.S. remains concerned that North Korea may simply want to buy time. Any resumption of the six-party talks will depend on Washington.

The talks involving China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the U.S. began in 2003 with the goal of persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear and missile programs. The dialogue was suspended in 2008, and in 2013 -- about a year after Kim took power -- Pyongyang declared the framework was no more.

An offer to resume the talks would thus represent a major shift in policy for North Korea. 

The official statement from the Xi-Kim summit did not mention the six-party talks, likely in light of American skepticism over the framework. Efforts to revive the talks would probably begin only after the U.S.-North Korea summit next month, one of the sources said.

Trump maintains an unyielding stance on North Korea, despite agreeing last month to meet with Kim. If anything, the Trump administration is growing more hawkish with his recent nomination of former CIA director Mike Pompeo as secretary of state and appointment of John Bolton, a former ambassador to the United Nations, as national security adviser.

Resurrecting the six-party talks now serves North Korea's interests -- and China's.

Chairs sit empty as delegations from the U.S., Japan, Russia, China and South Korea wait for the North Koreans to arrive for the closing ceremony of six-party talks in Beijing on Feb. 28, 2004.   © Reuters

Observers say the prospect of a U.S. military strike on North Korea could loom larger if Trump's meeting with Kim fails to produce a breakthrough. Should that happen, Kim would want to have China -- which has long supported North Korea but had fallen out with its neighbor under the young leader's rule -- firmly back on his country's side.

Kim has proposed an incremental denuclearization, which has been tried before. The six nations in the talks tend to split into two camps -- with Japan, the U.S. and South Korea on one side and China, Russia and North Korea on the other -- making it difficult and time consuming to reach any meaningful agreements. Prolonged talks would ease Pyongyang's fears of an American strike.

The framework also lets China take the lead on the North Korean issue as chair and host of the talks. China has called repeatedly for resolving the situation through dialogue, hoping to prevent a U.S.-involved armed conflict on its doorstep.

Some diplomatic sources speculate that China proposed to the U.S. a separate four-nation arrangement including the two Koreas, so that the four principal combatants in the Korean War could turn the existing armistice into a full-fledged peace treaty. Washington considered that idea under former President George W. Bush.

Excluding Russia and Japan from the dialogue on North Korea would strengthen China's position. Beijing is weighing options for preventing Washington and Pyongyang from reaching an agreement on their own.

Japan does not want to make a hasty move back toward the six-party negotiating table. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visits the U.S. starting April 17, and he is expected to urge Trump to maintain the "maximum pressure" campaign on North Korea that Japan has enthusiastically backed.

Abe is open to meeting with Kim himself in order to reach a resolution on the Japanese citizens kidnapped decades ago by the North.

Wataru Suzuki contributed to this report. 

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