Senior officials from the United States, South Korea and Japan opened talks on Friday aimed at arranging a fresh round of six-party negotiations on dismantling North Korea's nuclear programs as doubts grew about the outlook for discussions later this month.
South Korea's foreign minister said on Friday it was hard to be optimistic that the talks, which bring together the United States, Russia, China and Japan as well as the two Koreas, could be held in September.
Seoul had earlier aimed for a Sept. 22 start.
Recent revelations of an unsanctioned South Korean uranium enrichment experiment could put the talks at risk, and the North may also see little incentive to budge before November's US presidential election and join in, analysts have said.
US Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly is meeting South Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Lee Soo-hyuck and Mitoji Yabunaka, director general of the Japanese Foreign Ministry's Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau.
The three met for informal talks on Thursday, after which Kelly, known for being tight-lipped, was "not in a cheerful or happy mood," a source told Reuters.
On Friday, Kelly merely smiled when asked if six-way talks could be held on Sept. 22.
Beijing, which has hosted past rounds of six-party talks, has been hopeful a fresh round could be held this month.
But a Chinese government spokesman said on Tuesday that obstacles were hampering efforts to get the participants together.
South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon said on Friday that Seoul is working to try and hold the talks this month, but recent North Korean comments suggested no grounds for optimism.
"On the question of whether there will be a round of six-party talks, it is becoming difficult to be optimistic," Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon told South Korea's CBS radio.
Senior Chinese leader Li Changchun will lead a party delegation to North Korea from Friday as China tries to coax Pyongyang to the negotiating table.
A North Korean envoy said on Wednesday, however, that the talks had been jeopardized by tough talking about Pyongyang by President Bush ahead of the election.
"If they continue to keep up this hostile attack on us, I don't think there is any chance," North Korean ambassador to Britain Ri Yong Ho told Reuters.
South Korean revelations
Prospects for the six-way talks could also be snarled by recent revelations that South Korean scientists conducted an unsanctioned laser enrichment test involving uranium.
North Korea has said the uranium experiment was a "dangerous movement" that could trigger a nuclear arms race.
Ralph Cossa, head of the Pacific Forum CSIS think tank in Hawaii, took a contrariant view, however, and forecast a "better than 50-50 chance" of six-party talks in September.
Unless Democratic Party candidate John Kerry (news - web sites) appeared to have a strong lead over President Bush, North Korea was likely to calculate it would get a better deal now than after the election, when Bush might take an even harder line, Cossa said.
Nor was the fuss over South Korea's nuclear revelations likely to derail multilateral talks, he added. "It gives North Korea a day or two to play the moral high ground, but in the final analysis, South Korea came clean," he said.
The nuclear crisis erupted in October 2002 when US diplomats said Pyongyang admitted pursuing a covert uranium enrichment program, in addition to a plutonium program that was suspended as part of a 1994 accord.
North Korea has since denied the existence of the uranium program and unfrozen its plutonium program. US officials say Pyongyang may have enough nuclear material for eight bombs.
In informal discussions on Thursday, Kelly said it was good that South Korea had revealed that its experiments were conducted and urged Pyongyang to follow suit and disclose its own nuclear development programs, Kyodo news agency said.
It was agreed at the third round of the six-way talks in Beijing to meet again by the end of September, but no date has yet been set for the next round.
Kelly heads for Beijing on Sunday.
(China Daily via agencies September 10, 2004)