The US, South Korea, China, Russia and Japan may hold talks next month on neutralizing North Korea's rogue nuclear program after the secretive regime abruptly ended a formal six-nation disarmament dialogue by conducting an atomic test, an official said on 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 US 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 UN 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 UN.
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 US 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 US officials said Thursday that the US 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 intelligence.
South Korea's Defense Ministry declined to give any information on the vessel.