US envoy in Asia seeks to calm Koreas after attack

South Korean protesters with portraits of U.S. special envoy on North Korea, Stephen Bosworth shout slogans during a rally against the United States and South Korean government's policies on North Korea in front of the Foreign Ministry in Seoul, South Kor

SEOUL, South Korea — President Barack Obama’s envoy for North Korea sought to calm fears of war on the Korean peninsula, saying Wednesday that Washington and Seoul are working on ways to deal with the North in the wake of a deadly shelling of a front-line island.

Stephen Bosworth’s meetings with high-ranking South Korean officials, including the foreign minister and the top envoy on North Korean nuclear matters, follow signals from both Seoul and Pyongyang that peace talks are possible, even after weeks of warlike rhetoric and military drills by both countries.

Asked while leaving the Foreign Ministry whether Washington had put any pressure on its South Korean ally, Bosworth said simply, “Never.”

South Korea and the United States agreed that stalled international nuclear disarmament talks should resume only after the North shows a willingness to make progress on abandoning its nuclear programs, a senior government official told South Korean reporters, according to news reports.

The two sides also agreed that progress on relations between the Koreas should be seen before nuclear talks restart, the official said.

Reporters of foreign news organizations were not allowed to cover the background briefing, and South Korea’s Foreign Ministry would not immediately confirm the reports.

Bosworth arrived in Seoul on Tuesday as part of a tour that also includes stops in China and Japan, expressing hopes that serious negotiations on North Korea will start soon. He didn’t elaborate and it wasn’t clear if he was referring to stalled six-nation nuclear disarmament talks or something else.

He said he would continue to coordinate closely with China, his next stop and the North’s main ally.

Bosworth, who arrived in Beijing late Wednesday night, is expected to ask China for insights into last month’s talks in Pyongyang between North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo, Beijing’s top foreign policy official. China has come under growing pressure to push ally North Korea to change its behavior.

Tensions on the divided Korean peninsula soared after a North Korean artillery barrage Nov. 23 on Yeonpyeong Island killed two South Korean marines and two civilians.

South Korea has vowed to retaliate against North Korea if provoked again, and the North has threatened war if its territory is violated. But there have been comments since New Year’s Day by both countries that indicate a potential path toward negotiations.

North Korea, meanwhile, said in an article in its main Rodong Sinmun newspaper on Wednesday that the confrontation between North and South should be eased. “Inter-Korean relations cannot be improved while the tension is being escalated and the danger of a war is increasing,” said the article, carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.

In Washington, China’s foreign minister discussed North Korea’s nuclear program with U.S. National Security Adviser Tom Donilon in a White House meeting Tuesday.

They talked about ways to persuade Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons program, to meet its commitments and international obligations, and to avoid destabilizing behavior, the White House said in a statement.