Ties with North not likely to thaw

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Ties with North not likely to thaw

While the international community welcomed North Korea’s agreement to suspend a uranium enrichment facility and temporarily foreswear missile and nuclear tests, skepticism remains in the South over whether the agreement with the U.S. for food aid will restart the six-party denuclearization talks or lead to any improvement in frosty inter-Korean relations.

Although South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade issued a statement Wednesday welcoming the agreement as a route to restarting the six-party talks. Local analysts said the possibility of a thaw in inter-Korean relations and resumption of the multilateral talks is low.

After talks in Beijing with the U.S., North Korea agreed to suspend operations at its uranium enrichment facility at Yongbyon. The U.S. agreed to donate a food aid package of 240,000 metric tons, and possibly more in the future. Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency would be allowed to inspect the uranium facility. North Korea also promised a moratorium on provocative acts like missile and nuclear tests.

“Although the precondition for holding the U.S.-North Korea talks was an improvement in inter-Korean relations,” Yun Duk-min, a professor at the state-run Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, told the JoongAng Ilbo, “there will be a string of bilateral talks between Pyongyang and Washington without that precondition from now on.”

“North Korea will likely maintain its hawkish stance against the South while improving the relations with the United States,” said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korean studies professor at Dongguk University.

The two countries simultaneously issued statements Wednesday night Korea time.

“We confirmed that the United States will no longer take hostile acts against the DPRK and it is prepared to improve the bilateral relation on a basis of respecting autonomy and equality,” the statement released by the official Central News Agency read.

However, the JoongAng Ilbo found several subtle differences in the statements issued by Pyongyang and Washington.

First, each country used a different order in describing the agreement’s conditions.

Washington mentioned the suspension of uranium enrichment and the moratorium on missile and nuclear tests first, followed by details about the food aid. The North’s statement reversed that order.

When it comes to the food aid package, Pyongyang said, “The United States will put its efforts into offering additional food aid” beyond the 240,000 tons.

Washington’s statement mentions “the prospect of additional assistance based on continued need.”

About the return of IAEA inspectors to Yongbyon, the U.S. statement says the inspectors will “verify and monitor” the suspension of the uranium enrichment facility, but the North didn’t use the word “verify.”

The U.S. also said the inspectors will check whether the 5MWe nuclear reactor in Yongbyon is crippled or not, but the North didn’t mention anything about the reactor.

According to sources, on the first day of the bilateral talks, the delegations had six hours and thirty minutes of discussions. On the second day, Feb 24, they reached an agreement within two hours. A U.S. official told the JoongAng Ilbo that they assumed that the North Korean delegation returned to Pyongyang and spent a night there, to get directions from senior officials.

U.S. authorities also told the JoongAng Ilbo that the North pushed demands for corn and rice in the so-called nutritional aid, while the U.S. tried to offer only baby formula or dried corn for infants and children, because it worried the rice and corn would go to the North Korean military. They finally reached a vague compromise.

The international community cautiously welcomed the agreement.

Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hong Lei issued a comment yesterday saying, “China welcomes the improvement of U.S.-North Korea relations dedicated to peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula.”

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement Wednesday that he was “encouraged by the resumption of the DPRK-U.S. dialogue and welcomes the positive and substantive progress achieved at their recent talks in Beijing.”

In Russia, Konstantin Kosachev, first deputy chairman of the State Duma International Affairs Committee, told the RIA Novosti news agency that the North’s agreement was an opportunity to end its alienation from the international community.

Japan’s Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba called the deal “an important step” to resolve various current issues regarding North Korea and urged the regime to take concrete actions for nuclear disarmament.

Yukiya Amano, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said the agency is ready to send inspectors to the Yongbyon facility again. The agency’s inspectors were expelled in April 2009.

However, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was still cautious about North Korea’s implementation of the agreement.

“The United States .?.?. still has profound concerns,” said Clinton. “But on the occasion of Kim Jong-il’s death, I said that it is our hope that the new leadership will choose to guide their nation onto the path of peace by living up to its obligations. Today’s announcement represents a modest first step in the right direction.”

Clinton also said that “intensive monitoring” is an essential condition for aid to make sure food reaches those most in need.

By Kim Hee-jin, Kim Su-jeong [heejin@joongang.co.kr]
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