US, Regional Powers May Meet on North Korea Next Month

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) - The U.S., South Korea, China, Russia
and Japan may hold talks next month on neutralizing North Korea's
rogue nuclear program after the secretive regime laid abruptly
ended a formal six-nation disarmament dialogue by conducting an
atomic test, an official said Saturday.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak floated the idea of
bringing together officials of the five countries during his summit
with President Barack Obama at the White House this past week, the
South Korean Foreign Ministry official said.

The U.S. and Japan have voiced support for the five-way talks
but China and Russia have yet to reply to Seoul's proposal, the
official said, requesting anonymity because he was discussing a
plan still in the works.

The official said "it remains to be seen" where or when the
meeting - if it materializes - will take place, but one possibility
is on the sidelines of a regional security forum scheduled in
Phuket, Thailand in July.

"We have to see how things will play out," he said.

The proposal for the meeting comes amid rising tensions over the
North's missile and nuclear tests and its reported preparations for
another long-range missile launch in growing defiance of a U.N.
resolution on North Korea over its May 25 nuclear test.

Last week, the communist regime vowed to bolster its nuclear
arsenal and threatened war to protest sanctions imposed by the U.N.

The Foreign Ministry official said North Korean officials could
also be invited as they are scheduled to attend the Phuket meeting,
in a bid to revive the six-party process.

But he cautioned that the envisioned meeting - either among the
five nations or the six - was still in preliminary planning stages
and it was still not clear whether nuclear envoys or foreign
ministers would participate.

The six-party talks started in 2003 with the aim of giving North
Korea economic aid and other concessions in exchange for it
dismantling its nuclear program. The last round of talks were held
in December 2008 when negotiations became deadlocked.

In April this year, the North announced it would no longer
participate in the talks and went on to test-fire a ballistic
missile followed by a nuclear test in May. The reclusive communist
regime of North Korea has little interaction with the world, but it
does attend the ASEAN Regional Forum, an annual Asia-Pacific
security dialogue.

Last year, then U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met
with North Korean Foreign Minister Pak Ui Chun along with their
counterparts from the four other nations on the sidelines of the
forum in Singapore. Rice later held a brief one-on-one exchange
with Pak.

Two U.S. officials said Thursday that the U.S. military had
begun tracking a North Korean-flagged ship, Kang Nam, which may be
carrying illicit weapons.

The vessel, which has been involved in weapons proliferation
before, left a port in North Korea on Wednesday and was in the
Pacific Ocean off the coast of China on Thursday, the officials
said. They asked not to be identified because they were discussing

South Korea's Defense Ministry declined to give any information
on the vessel.

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