SEOUL – 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, reaching out to Washington 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 1950-53 Korean War.
Pyongyang stopped the reunions almost two years ago in anger at the hardline 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.
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 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
Philip Goldberg, the U.S. coordinator for U.N. sanctions imposed on North Korea, has been in Asia in the past week 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.
Analysts said the talks among the Red Cross societies from the two Koreas for the reunions could solve another problem by leading to the release of four South Korean fishermen held for weeks in the North after their boat crossed a nautical border.
North Korea also re-opened one of the few hotlines between the Koreas after cutting the communication link about a year ago.
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 on Sunday had his first chance to directly tell North Korean officials of his policy when he met a delegation that had flown to Seoul to mourn the death of former President Kim Dae-jung, who was buried on Sunday.
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 and urged Washington not to relent on sanctions yet.
(Additional reporting by Christine Kim; Editing by Jonathan Thatcher and Dean Yates)