France says on verge of opening office in North Korea

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France is on the verge of opening an office in North Korea to develop cultural ties and to represent French aid groups working in the totalitarian state, the foreign ministry said on Thursday.

The office is to be headed by French diplomat Olivier Vaysset, "given the needs that have been identified in the cultural and humanitarian domains," ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said.

Vaysset's mission does not represent France reopening diplomatic ties with North Korea. With Estonia, France is one of only two European Union powers to have no formal links with Pyongyang.

Most EU countries recognised North Korea in 2000 or 2001 at a moment of relative warmth in relations between the isolated regime and the international community following a summit between North and South Korea.

France did not follow suit, and North Korea's relations with the outside world have worsened dramatically since, in particular after Pyongyang withdrew from the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty in 2003.

Paris has argued that North Korea must improve its human rights record and address international concerns over the regime's nuclear weapons programme before full diplomatic ties are agreed.

France's former special envoy to Pyongyang, ex-culture minister Jack Lang, visited the North in November 2009. He said afterwards that France had offered to forge cultural links but not full diplomatic ties.

The French move comes as ties between North and South Korea are tense.

On Tuesday, North Korea's vice foreign minister, Pak Kil-Yon, told the UN General Assembly that the south's conservative government had taken relations "to their worst state with widespread atmosphere of war and confrontation."

Pak's conflict warnings reflect the icy state of relations between the two, which have never formally ended the 1950-53 Korean War with a peace treaty.

Last year, Seoul accused Pyongyang of torpedoing a warship, killing 46 sailors. North Korea angrily denied the charge but went on to shell a border island last November, killing four South Koreans, two of them civilians.

Denuclearisation talks with Pyongyang, which has tested two nuclear bombs, have also been stalled since 2009.

The six-party talks, grouping the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States, are aimed at persuading Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons for energy aid and security and diplomatic benefits.

© 2011 AFP

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