U.S. dismisses bilateral talks with Pyongyang

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U.S. dismisses bilateral talks with Pyongyang

WASHINGTON - The United States Tuesday dismissed any bilateral dialogue with North Korea on easing tensions on the Korean Peninsula, urging the North to first improve ties with South Korea.

“Right now we’re focused on inter-Korean dialogue,” State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters. “Obviously, we have long supported dialogue between North and South Korea.”

Crowley was responding to the report that North Korea has asked for defense ministers’ talks with the U.S. through the North Korean mission to the United Nations in New York.

North Korea earlier this month walked out of preparatory talks to revive high-level inter-Korean military dialogue, citing South Korea’s demand for an apology for the North’s shelling of a South Korean border island and the torpedoing of a South Korean warship that killed 50 people, including two civilians, last year.

South Korea and the U.S. want the North to apologize for the provocations before moving to resume six-party talks on ending the North’s nuclear weapons programs in return for massive economic aid and diplomatic recognition by Washington and Tokyo.

The talks, involving the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia, have been deadlocked for more than two years over the North’s missile and nuclear tests and other provocations.

The walkout dampened the reconciliatory mood Pyongyang has launched in recent weeks, apparently to attract much-needed food and economic aid to the impoverished state, which has been under tougher UN sanctions for its nuclear and missile tests in early 2009, through the resumption of the aid-for-denuclearization talks.

China, North Korea’s staunchest ally, wants the six-party talks to reopen as soon as possible without any conditions attached.

Seoul and Washington want the UN Security Council to address the North’s uranium enrichment program, revealed in November, that could serve as a second way of building nuclear bombs in addition to its existing plutonium program, despite Pyongyang’s claims it is producing fuel for power generation.

U.S. National Intelligence Director James Clapper said Wednesday that the North apparently has more uranium enrichment facilities than the one in its nuclear complex in Yongbyon, which was revealed last year.

China, which has veto power within the Security Council, opposes the council dealing with the uranium program, citing lack of concrete evidence and its possible adverse impact on the early resumption of the multilateral nuclear talks.

Adm. Robert Willard, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, last week warned of further provocations from North Korea within months as part of the ongoing effort by leader Kim Jong-il to cede power to his youngest son, Jong-un, in a third-generation hereditary power transition, unprecedented in any communist state.

The 28-year-old heir apparent, who like his father lacks a proper military background, is believed to be trying to rally support from the military, the only power base in the impoverished but nuclear-armed communist state, amid chronic food shortages and economic plight.

A joint team from the World Food Program and the Food and Agriculture Organization is currently in North Korea to assess the North’s food situation, aggravated by a poor harvest, severe winter weather and foot-and-mouth disease, which reportedly led to thousands of people starving to death this winter.

The U.S. said last week it does not have plans to provide food assistance to North Korea unless the North enhances transparency in the distribution of food aid, which was suspended in early 2009 amid heightened tensions.

Reports have said that North Korea recently completed the construction of a new, sophisticated missile launch site on its western coast near the Chinese border, in an apparent bid to test-fire another ballistic missile that can reach the mainland United States.

Pyongyang reportedly is also digging a new tunnel to prepare for a third nuclear test.

U.S. President Barack Obama received a special briefing on North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction on Feb. 9.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last month that North Korea’s missiles and nuclear weapons will pose a threat to the U.S. within five years.

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