North Korea appears unwilling to hold formal talks with the US on nuclear programme soon: US official

KUALA LUMPUR (Bloomberg) - North Korea appears unwilling to hold formal talks with the United States on its nuclear programme anytime soon, said a former American official who met senior Pyongyang diplomats in Malaysia last week.

"At this unofficial meeting, North Korea spoke about their security concerns and need for a nuclear deterrence, given the hostile relationship they have with the US," Mr Joseph DeTrani, a former top US intelligence specialist who helped broker a 2005 agreement on North Korea's nuclear programme, said by e-mail. "It appears that North Korea is unlikely to enter into official talks with the US in the near term."

The Oct 21 to Oct 22 gathering brought North Korea's Vice-Foreign Minister Han Song Ryol together with a delegation of former US nuclear negotiators. It offered a glimpse of leader Kim Jong Un's intentions after his regime conducted its fifth nuclear test in September, part of the isolated regime's efforts to accelerate the development of atomic weapons.

Mr John Kirby, a spokesman for the US State Department, told reporters on Monday that the discussions in Malaysia were between "private citizens" and were "independent of any US government involvement".

US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken will visit China on Saturday for talks on North Korea and other security issues, and Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin arrived this week in Pyongyang to take part in border meetings.

The US delegation in Malaysia included Mr Robert Gallucci, who helped defuse nuclear tensions between the two countries in 1994. Mr Gallucci previously met North Korean diplomats for unofficial talks three years ago.

While the chances of immediate formal negotiations are low, Mr DeTrani said that North Korea may be willing to enter into exploratory talks with the US "in the longer term".

"It was my sense they would, although it wasn't explicitly stated," said Mr DeTrani, a former senior adviser to the Director of National Intelligence. The US delegation recommended a halt to nuclear tests and missile launches, as well as the need for confidence building initiatives from both sides, he said.

During the talks, Mr DeTrani said that North Korean diplomats spoke about the United Nations sanctions imposed on their country, and expressed concern about the use of strategic bombers in joint US-South Korean military drills.

The US briefly sent B-52 and B-1B bombers to South Korea in a show of force following North Korea's nuclear tests. Senior US and South Korean defence officials met last week in Washington, where they discussed whether to routinely deploy US strategic assets to South Korea.

North Korea reached a deal in 2005 with five other nations - the US, China, Japan, South Korea and Russia - to start dismantling its nuclear arms programme in return for security assurances. The deal fell apart after North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in 2006. Since then North Korea has held four more tests, including two this year.

"The North Korean representatives did not mention any additional nuclear tests or missile launches, although based on past experience, it's likely North Korea will continue with its nuclear tests and missile launches," Mr DeTrani said.

"Getting them to denuclearize would be difficult, given where they are with their nuclear weapons, but their seeming concern about their security and sanctions that are biting might motivate them to revisit the September 2005 Joint Statement."