Koreas war played down by envoys

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South Korean foreign minister Kim Sung-hwan, right, shakes hands with US special envoy on North Korea Stephen Bosworth (AP)

President Barack Obama’s envoy for North Korea has sought to calm fears of war on the Korean peninsula, saying that the US and South Korea are working on ways to deal with the North in the wake of a deadly shelling of a front-line island.

Stephen Bosworth’s meetings with high-ranking South Korean officials, including the foreign minister and the top envoy on North Korean nuclear matters, follow signs from both Seoul and Pyongyang that peace talks are possible after weeks of military drills by both countries.

South Korea and the US agreed that stalled international nuclear disarmament talks should resume only after the North shows a willingness to make progress on abandoning its nuclear programmes, a senior government official is reported to have told South Korean journalists.

The two sides also agreed that progress on relations between the Koreas should be seen before nuclear talks restart, the official is reported to have said. Reporters of foreign news organisations were not allowed to cover the background briefing and South Korea’s foreign ministry would not immediately confirm the reports.

Mr Bosworth arrived in Seoul on Tuesday as part of a tour that also includes stops in China and Japan, expressing hopes that serious negotiations on North Korea will start soon. He said he would continue to coordinate closely with China, his next stop and the North’s main ally.

He is expected to ask China for insights into last month’s talks in Pyongyang between North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and Chinese state councillor Dai Bingguo, Beijing’s top foreign policy official. China has come under growing pressure to push ally North Korea to change its behaviour.

Tensions on the divided Korean peninsula soared after a North Korean artillery barrage on Yeonpyeong Island killed two South Korean marines and two civilians on November 23.

South Korea has vowed to retaliate against North Korea if provoked again and the North has threatened war if its territory is violated. But there have been comments since New Year’s Day by both countries that indicate a potential path toward negotiations.

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