BALI, Indonesia (AP) — Top nuclear envoys from rivals North and South Korea agreed Friday to work toward a resumption of stalled nuclear disarmament talks, a significant breakthrough after more than a year of confrontation and escalating threats that have put the region on edge.
The talks, which the envoys described as constructive and sincere, mark the first such meeting since 2008, when international negotiations aimed at ending Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program collapsed. They could represent a long-awaited move away from conflict and toward dialogue.
The announcement is good news for diplomats in Washington and Asia who have been eager for the two rivals to ease tensions that spiked after two attacks that Seoul blames on Pyongyang last year killed 50 South Koreans.
Since the last round of talks, North Korea has also conducted a second nuclear test and revealed a uranium enrichment facility that could give it another way to make atomic bombs. Recent North Korean threats against Seoul's conservative government include a vow to retaliate over South Korean soldiers' use of pictures of the ruling North Korean family for target practice.
North Korea, however, has also been signaling a willingness to return to six-nation nuclear talks, which have previously been a path toward badly needed aid. It has been South Korea that has shown reluctance, demanding first that the North apologize for last year's attacks before agreeing to nuclear talks; the United States has stood by ally South Korea, saying Seoul must be satisfied with the North's sincerity before Washington will act.
"We agreed to make efforts to resume the six-party talks soon," said Ri Yong Ho of North Korea as he was thronged by TV crews and reporters on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum — Asia's largest security gathering. "The talks were conducted in a candid and sincere atmosphere."
His South Korean counterpart, Wi Sung-lac, agreed, describing the two-hour meeting as "very constructive" and "useful," and saying the two sides would continue to work together to create a conducive atmosphere for the disarmament talks, which have been stalled since North Korea walked out to protest international criticism of a prohibited long-range rocket launch.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed news of the sidelines talks as "a step forward," his spokesman, Martin Nesirky, said in New York. "The secretary-general hopes that the recent talks will help resume the six-party talks in the near future and further improve inter-Korean relations."
The announcement is a good first step, but there will be considerable skepticism, and it remains to be seen whether North Korea will show a willingness to make real disarmament progress — something Seoul and Washington have also been demanding. Diplomats have long experience with seeing the North engage in negotiations and agree to concessions before ultimately putting up roadblocks that prevent real progress.
Still, the announcement will be welcome news in a rattled Seoul, said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
"Public opinion has grown in favor of dialogue. People are fed up with the monthslong tension that has added to instability," Yang said.
The announcement also bodes well for solving a long list of grievances between the Koreas, Yang said, including a suspended joint tourism project at a North Korean resort and reuniting families separated by the Korean War.
Pyongyang's reasons for returning to the talks include a need to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough and outside aid ahead of the 2012 centennial of the birth of revered North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, which Pyongyang is promoting as a milestone in its history. South Korea's government, meanwhile, is seen as being eager not to be blamed for leaving the disarmament talks suspended. Analysts say the government of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak may want to report progress before it leaves office in early 2013.
"We expect today's meeting will compel North Korea to come forward in future with a sincere attitude over the nuclear issue" and last year's two attacks, said Lee Jong-joo, a spokeswoman for South Korea's Unification Ministry, the country's main arm for handling inter-Korean affairs. "The sincerity to resolve these issues is what we have been demanding from North Korea."
Yukiya Amano, the head of the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog group — the International Atomic Energy Agency — told The Associated Press: "I really hope that there will be an occasion that the six parties would talk sooner or later and re-energize their efforts to denuclearize the Korean peninsula.
"The IAEA should have a central role or vital role in verifications. But in order to do that, basic understandings among countries are needed," he added.
The participation of top diplomats from the six countries involved in the nuclear negotiations — the United States, China, Russia, Japan and North and South Korea — at the ASEAN forum had raised hopes of a breakthrough.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi were also going to discuss their "mutual desire for peace and stability on the Korean peninsula."
Yang said now is the time to unite.
"Anything we can do together to promote a better atmosphere and good dialogue among the parties concerned and to restart the six-party talks would be in the best interests of peace, stability and security of the region," he said.
South Korea and the United States say North Korea must demonstrate a commitment to abandoning its nuclear programs. Seoul has also demanded a show of regret for the deadly sinking of one of its warships a year ago that the South blames on an North Korean torpedo, and for a North Korean artillery attack on a front-line island in November that killed four South Koreans.
Kim Yong-hyun, a professor at Seoul's Dongguk University, predicted after Friday's inter-Korean meeting that the six-nation talks could resume as early as September.
"It's a positive sign," he said.
The two Koreas remain in a technical state of war because their three-year conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, in 1953. The United States has 28,500 troops in the South — a presence that Pyongyang cites as a main factor behind its need to build a nuclear program.
Klug reported from Seoul. Associated Press Writers Hyung-jin Kim, Sam Kim and Kelly Olsen also contributed from Seoul.