Nuclear envoys from South Korea, Japan and the United States agreed Wednesday to step up pressure -- including possible sanctions -- on North Korea to abandon nuclear weapons, while keeping diplomatic options "open."
Speaking to reporters after trilateral talks in Seoul, the three officials also highlighted the "seriousness" of the progress the North has been making with its expanding nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
"We agreed on the importance of enhancing pressure and sanctions on North Korea even as we keep all our diplomatic options on the table and open," the U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, Sung Kim, told reporters.
The talks between Kim, South Korea's Hwang Joon-Kook and Japan's Junichi Ihara lasted around three hours and included discussions on the possibility of reviving long-stalled six-party talks aimed at pushing Pyongyang towards denuclearization.
North Korea has been ramping up its nuclear rhetoric of late, boasting last week of its ability to miniaturize a nuclear warhead to fit on high-precision, long-range rockets.
It also hailed the recent "historic" test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), although outside experts said state media reports of the test were exaggerated and estimated that the North was still years from developing a genuine SLBM capability.
- 'Serious' nuclear advances -
Hwang said the three envoys had all pointed to the "seriousness of the advancement of the North's nuclear capability", while Sung Kim said the SLBM test -- whether genuine or not -- was also unnerving.
"It is of great concern to us that the North Koreans are continuing to pursue such capabilities," Kim said.
"I think their intention is clear, and we should be concerned regardless of the stage of their development," he added.
Before the trilateral dialogue began in the morning, Hwang said the meeting was particularly timely given what he described as an "uncertain and tense" situation in North Korea.
Questions over the stability of Kim Jong-Un's leadership resurfaced this month after South Korean intelligence reported that his defence minister had been purged and likely executed.
Against this background, efforts have been gathering pace to find a way back to the six-party talks, between North and South Korea, Japan, the United States, China and Russia.
The six-party forum was set up to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons in return for economic and diplomatic benefits, as well as security guarantees, but has not met since December 2008.
After Wednesday's dialogue in Seoul, the South Korean and U.S. envoys were set to fly to Beijing to meet their Chinese counterpart Wu Dawei.
- New strategy needed? -
There is growing pressure for the international community to try a new approach with North Korea, which has pushed ahead with its nuclear and missile programs despite multi-layered U.N. sanctions and diplomatic isolation.
The United States and South Korea insist that the North must show a tangible commitment to denuclearization before significant talks can resume -- a stance some analysts find too rigid.
"Unless they lower the bar for North Korea to resume the talks, China is unlikely to take the initiative," said Hong Hyun-Ik of the Sejong Institute think-tank in Seoul.
China is North Korea’s largest investor, aid donor and trade partner, as well as its main diplomatic protector.
But relations have cooled significantly since Xi Jinping became China’s president in 2012 and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un took power following the death of his father in late 2011.
Xi and Kim have kept their distance since each assumed power and the Chinese leader's first visit as head of state to the Korean peninsula was to the capitalist South last year, rather than the North.
North Korea carried out nuclear tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013.
A recent report by U.S. researchers warned that it was poised to expand its nuclear program over the next five years and, in a worst-case scenario, could possess 100 atomic arms by 2020.
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