The two Koreas were close to agreeing Friday to cooperate in seeking a peaceful resolution of the North's nuclear standoff, but remained apart on other key issues, causing a delay in the North Korean delegation's departure. Delegates from North and South Korea at the Cabinet-level talks were making last-ditch efforts to finalize a joint statement, which was supposed to have been signed Thursday evening on the southern resort island of Jeju.
The North's demand that South Korean visitors be allowed to visit politically sensitive places in the North was the main sticking point, an official close to the inter-Korean talks told reporters on condition his name not be used because of the ongoing talks.
The South has declined to let its citizens visit certain places due to concerns that they could be seen as glorifying the North's regime and cult of personality around founding ruler Kim Il Sung. Some of the North Korean delegates were seen walking out of the hotel where the talks were taking place and wandering around in the lobby with their baggage, ising questions whether they were getting ready to leave without signing the statement. The North Koreans had initially planned to leave for Pyongyang at midmorning Friday. However, South Korean Unification Ministry spokesman Yang Chang-seok said "it looks like we will be able to agree on the joint statement today."
While it wasn't clear if Seoul would secure a firm commitment from the North Koreans to return to international talks on the North's nuclear weapons program, the two Koreas had nearly agreed on cooperating for a peaceful resolution of the issue, the official said Thursday.
North Korea threatened last week to stay away from the arms talks until the United States lifts financial sanctions against Pyongyang for alleged illicit activities, including money laundering and counterfeiting.
The latest spat between Washington and Pyongyang has dimmed prospects for the implementation of a breakthrough Sept. 19 joint statement in which the North agreed to abandon its nuclear programs in exchange for aid and security guarantees.
South Korea had hoped to use their highest-level dialogue channel, the 17th such meeting, with the North to convince the communist nation to return to the nuclear negotiations. The talks also involve China, Japan and Russia.
"It looks like the North thinks the U.S. is the cause of the latest stumbling block to the six-party talks," South Korean spokesman Kim Chun-sig said Thursday. "The North's position is that the nuclear issue should be resolved with the United States." Unification Minister Chung Dong-young, head of the South Korean delegation to the inter-Korean talks, is to travel Sunday to Washington, where he is expected to relay the North's position and try to bring both sides back to the negotiating table.
The North repeated its calls Thursday for the United States to lift the financial sanctions.
"The only way for the Bush group to get rid of its present deplorable position is to lift its financial sanctions against (North Korea) and sincerely work to find a solution to the problem at the six-party talks," the country's official Korean Central News Agency said. Other key issues being addressed in the inter-Korean talks include South Korean abductees and prisoners of war still believed to be held in the North, and setting a date for inter-Korean military talks, reports the AP. I.L.