U.S., 2 Asia allies discuss N. Korean nuclear threat

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspects the Sin Islet Defence Company in an undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang, March 12, 2015.

REUTERS

SEOUL, South Korea -- The top nuclear envoys from South Korea, the United States and Japan met Wednesday for talks focused on coordinating a response to North Korea's expanding nuclear weapons program.

The one-day meeting in Seoul follows a recent North Korea claim that it had tested a new type of missile from a submarine and a reiteration that it had built a nuclear warhead small enough to be mounted on a long-range missile. Outside analysts are skeptical about both these claims, but they believe the North has built a small but growing nuclear bomb arsenal and advanced its missile program since international nuclear disarmament talks stalled in early 2009.

Seoul, Washington and Tokyo are members of now-dormant six-nation negotiations aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear weapons program in return for aid and political concessions. The other members are Pyongyang, Beijing and Moscow.

Wednesday's meetings are part of a series of such talks meant to coordinate a unified stance on North Korea's growing arsenal. Prospects are slim that larger disarmament talks with Pyongyang will happen soon. Washington and its allies want North Korea to demonstrate its sincerity by following through with past nuclear pledges. North Korea, however, has consistently demanded that Washington and its allies recognize it as a nuclear weapons power.

Worries about the North's stability rose earlier this month when South Korea's spy agency said that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had his defense chief executed for disloyalty.

South Korean envoy Hwang Joonkook described Wednesday's meeting as "very timely" because of uncertainty in North Korea. "We're also facing a North Korea that is continuing to advance its nuclear and missile capabilities," Hwang said at the start of the meeting, according to Seoul's Foreign Ministry.

After the talks, South Korean and U.S. envoys are to fly to Beijing to hold individual talks with their Chinese counterpart, ministry officials said. China is the North's only major ally and main aid benefactor, and is often mentioned as the key to pushing the North to give up its nuclear ambitions.

U.S. officials quietly proposed a meeting with North Korea this January, before the U.S. and South Korea began annual military exercises that North Korea regards as a provocation. The two sides, however, failed to agree on who would attend and where they would meet.