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North hints at rejoining stalled talks

Seoul responds cautiously to possible thaw  PLAY AUDIO

Sept 19,2009
North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, right, meets with Chinese President Hu Jintao’s special envoy Dai Bingguo, center, in Pyongyang yesterday. [XINHUA/YONHAP]
North Korean leader Kim Jong-il said yesterday that he is willing to discuss his country’s nuclear arms program and the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in multilateral and bilateral talks, China’s state media reported yesterday.

According to a report by Xinhua News Agency issued from Pyongyang, Kim told visiting Chinese presidential envoy Dai Bingguo about the North’s willingness to return to the nuclear talks. Kim was quoted as saying that his country “will continue adhering to the goal of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” and “is willing to resolve the relevant problems through bilateral and multilateral talks.”

The remarks by the leader of the reclusive communist state came amid intensifying global efforts to jump-start the stalled six-party nuclear talks, which involve the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States.

Washington has also showed a willingness to engage Pyongyang bilaterally, although it made clear that the contact will have to be made within the framework of the six-party nuclear negotiations.

South Korea responded carefully to the report about a possible breakthrough in diplomatic efforts to persuade North Korea to return to the six-party talks, noting that Pyongyang made clear in April that the negotiations were practically dead.

“We will have to verify the true intention behind Kim’s remarks,” said Kim Eun-hye, a spokeswoman for President Lee Myung-bak, yesterday.

Another senior Blue House aide in charge of the North Korea issues was even more cautious.

“The North did not say specifically that it will return to the six-nation talks,” said Kim Tae-hyo, Lee’s secretary for national strategy. “We will check on what the North really means after the Chinese delegation returns home.”

On April 14, the North’s Foreign Ministry declared that the communist country would never return to the six-nation talks, complaining that the negotiations “have turned into a platform for infringing upon the sovereignty of the DPRK [North Korea’s formal name] and seeking to force the DPRK to disarm itself and bring down the system in it.” And in May, the North conducted a second nuclear test.

The Lee administration has maintained a harsher stance toward the North in comparison to the South’s two previous liberal administrations, and the latest remarks made by Seoul’s foreign minister yesterday coincide with a more conservative view.

The news from Xinhua came hours after the South’s Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan delivered a harsh assessment of North Korea’s nuclear arms program, which, he said, targets the South as part of a plan to communize the Korean Peninsula.

“It is dangerous and naive to think that the North would not use the weapons against the South,” Yu said at a breakfast meeting yesterday with members of the Korean Chamber of Commerce and Industry, adding that this made the issue more than a matter between just the North and the United States.

“North Korea’s goal is communizing the South and the nuclear weapons were developed to achieve the goal. It is naive to think that the nuclear issue is a matter between the North and the United States and that the two Koreas must get along,” he said.

Yu said the North is trying to secure its regime through nuclear brinkmanship. “The North has conducted two nuclear tests so it is impossible to separate inter-Korean relations from the nuclear weapons programs and develop the ties further as if nothing had happened,” Yu said.

In the meeting, Yu also warned against bilateral talks between Pyongyang and Washington.

“The North wants to use the bilateral talks to gain recognition as a nuclear-armed state and then proceed with nuclear disarmament negotiations with the United States,” Yu said. “When the North says it wants ‘hostile policies’ to be removed it means it wants to sign a peace treaty with the U.S. and for the U.S. to withdraw its troops from the South.”

Noting that the North is believed to have 40 kilograms (88.18 pounds) of weapons-grade plutonium, Yu said Pyongyang has the resources to build up to eight nuclear bombs. However, the minister said the Lee administration has no intention of halting the Kaesong Industrial Complex project, unless Pyongyang takes action first.

Yu’s remarks were in line with what President Lee Myung-bak said earlier this week, although the tone appears harsher. In a media interview on Tuesday, Lee had expressed skepticism about the true intentions behind North Korea’s latest peacemaking gestures.

President Lee also criticized the North for trying to buy time in order to get recognition as a nuclear-armed state while receiving economic assistance through bargaining.

“In time with its nuclear test in May, the North made fierce threats against the South, and yet now it suddenly wants to talk to us after making a few peacemaking gestures such as releasing a South Korean worker from forcible detention,” said a senior South Korean official. “Such an attitude is hard to accept.”

The Lee administration’s hard-line stance on the North is expected to be repeated next week when Lee addresses global leaders at the UN General Assembly in New York and the Group of 20 financial summit in Pittsburgh.

Yu’s harsh remarks were made at a sensitive time: The two Koreas are scheduled to have reunions for separated families from Sept. 26 to Oct. 1.

Kim Tae-hyo, the Blue House secretary for national strategy, said the family reunions will take place, dismissing concerns that Pyongyang will break the promise over Yu’s harsh remarks.

He also said Yu’s message was intended for South Koreans, while admitting that it would have served as an opportunity to clearly state what Seoul’s position over the nuclear issue is toward the members of the six-party talks.

Seoul’s tougher position toward Pyongyang was also confirmed by President Lee’s newly designated defense minister. Kim Tae-young, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who was named as Lee’s defense minister last week, told lawmakers yesterday that the South has confirmed where the North might have placed its nuclear weapons.

In his confirmation hearing at the National Assembly, Kim said the combined forces of South Korea and the United States have capabilities enough to pre-emptively strike the locations before the North uses the atomic weapons.


By Ser Myo-ja [myoja@joongang.co.kr]



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