South Korea is open to a leadership summit with the North Korea dictator Kim Jong-il if it shows it is sincere about nuclear disarmament, the south's president has said, further raising hopes of a resumption of talks between the troubled nations in the coming months.
Seoul has already suggested preliminary military-to-military talks on February 11 as momentum builds for a resumption of dialogue after a year of bloody military exchanges and heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula.
"I don't deny it," said the south's president Lee Myung-bak when asked during a live television interview if progress at upcoming talks could lead to a summit between the two leaders. "We can have a summit if needed." However analysts warn that any progress will be conditional on Pyongyang showing that it is serious about giving up its nuclear weapons program, or at least re-opening facilities to international inspectors who were thrown out by the North in 2002.
President Lee has taken a hardline with the north since coming to office in 2008, ending a decade of unconditional aid to the North – the so-called 'Sunshine Policy' – and refusing to negotiate with Pyongyang as long as it defies calls to give up its nuclear arsenal.
In a sign of the huge difficulties that still lie ahead, a leaked UN report suggested that North Korea has at least one further, undeclared secret nuclear facility at which it is developing its uranium enrichment capabilities.
The report to the UN committee monitoring sanctions on North Korea also suggests that the North is continuing to proliferate nuclear and missile technology, most recently with Iran whose own nuclear program is causing growing international concerns.
UN diplomats told the Reuters news agency that the report contained information from a US nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker who visited North Korea in November and was "stunned" by the sophistication of North Korea's uranium enrichment facilities at Yongbon.
"There's no way they could have outfitted the centrifuge facility between 2009 and now without there being additional secret sites," the diplomat said.
The report is expected to call for tighter implementation of UN sanctions imposed in 2006 and 2009 after the North's two nuclear tests, and a lengthening of the blacklist of companies and individuals involved in Pyongyang's illegal procurement activities.
The report will also call for "more vigorous export controls" by North Korea's neighbours, a clear reference to China which has been accused of failing to implement strict enough controls on the North's exports to Iran passing through its ports.
North Korea has already detonated two plutonium-based nuclear devices, which were only partially successful, but announced last year that it was now embarking on uranium enrichment, ostensibly for civilian purposes.
Analysts fear that if North Korea's uranium program advances too far, it will make it increasingly difficult to monitor Pyongyang's nuclear development since uranium – unlike plutonium – will allow the North to credibly claim it is for peaceful purposes.