Jong-un’s response to deal mulled

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Jong-un’s response to deal mulled

A historic nuclear deal was struck on Tuesday between Iran and six countries led by the United States, and analysts are pondering the implications for North Korea and the stalled international negotiations on its nuclear weapons.

But North Korean leader Kim Jong-un seems fixed on having it his own way - developing his nuclear and missile programs while also trying to improve the economy - despite international pressure and United Nations Security Council sanctions that are supported even by China.

Pyongyang’s relations with Beijing, its closest ally, have been frozen since its third nuclear test in February 2013, and analysts say Seoul needs to take a more active role in leading relations with North Korea.

“The Chinese ambassador to North Korea, Li Jinjun, took his post in Pyongyang in March but still hasn’t met with Kim Jong-un,” a high-ranking South Korean government official said. “Following the execution of Jang Song-thaek, Beijing’s channel to Pyongyang has been blocked so even China does not know the internal happenings of North Korea.”

Jang Song-thaek, the powerful uncle, one-time mentor and political guardian of Kim Jong-un, was executed for a wide range of alleged crimes in 2013. Among his many duties, he was a top liaison with the leadership in Beijing.

“The Unites States has imposed sanctions, and China, unlike in the past, has supported this, but such punitive measures are not working,” the official said. “[Pyongyang] is even rejecting the offer to hold six-party talks without any preconditions, where lifting of sanctions can be discussed.”

Kwon Young-se, former Korean Ambassador to China, said, “In the past, when North Korean officials went on overseas trips, they always stopped by Beijing and met with Chinese officials. However, for some time, Beijing has only become a layover where no meetings take place. This is the current reality of the somewhat uncomfortable relations between North Korea and China.”

Six-party talks launched in 2003 have stalled since 2009, when Pyongyang walked away from negotiations involving the two Koreas, the United States, China, Russia and Japan. While the technical purpose of the talks is to shut down North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, they are expected to evolve into a more general forum for diplomatic discussions.

Minister of Unification Hong Yong-pyo said during a press conference at the Seoul Foreign Correspondents Club on Tuesday, “The Iran nuclear deal is likely to have the effect of pressuring North Korea.”

He added that the South Korean government needs to cooperate to continue to guide North Korea to “make the right decision.”

He continued, “North Korea’s denuclearization is not an absolute precondition for every dialogue between the North and South … Even before North Korea denuclearizes, our government’s position has been that we will take needed measures to build the foundation for unification and restore a sense of fraternity between our people.”

Hong pointed out that the current situation is one in which “South Korea is asking for talks without preconditions, and North Korea is demanding a lot of conditions for dialogue.”

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs here said in a statement on Tuesday that the Korean government “welcomes” the joint agreement to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue and said it hopes that this could bring progress in talks on the North Korean situation.

Iran and six world powers, including the United States, United Kingdom, France, China, Russia and Germany, announced the landmark agreement in Vienna on Tuesday.

The accord, which comes after over a decade of diplomatic efforts, aims to rein in Iran from producing nuclear weapons in exchange for the U.S., European Union and the United Nations lifting stifling economic sanctions.

The Foreign Ministry continued, “In addition, the [South Korean] government hopes that meaningful progress will also be made in the North Korean nuclear issue through serious negotiations among concerned countries, and the process for ultimately resolving the issue will begin.”

The Iran deal also came as the United States and Cuba this year agreed to fully restore diplomatic relations after 54 years, another move that came as a shock to Pyongyang, which has chummy relations with Havana.

Following the Iran deal, U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said the U.S. is ready for negotiations with North Korea “as long as Pyongyang is serious about denuclearization.”

But a number of American officials have cast doubt on whether North Korea is serious about curbing its nuclear program, pointing to major differences between Tehran and Pyongyang.

For one thing, Tehran was in the process of developing nuclear weapons. In contrast, Pyongyang has already conducted three nuclear tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013. The third was conducted even after strong warnings against it from Beijing.

And there is concern that China’s leverage over North Korea is withering away.

“North Korea is taking a very aggressive attitude toward China,” a senior foreign affairs official said. “It’s at the point that North Korea could be considered a threat by China. Kim Jong-un is taking a big gamble thinking that for the sake of geopolitical security, China cannot help but allow North Korea’s nuclear program.”

Experts say South Korea may have to change its way of dealing with the North to restore any semblance of cooperative inter-Korean relations.

There have also been calls for South Korea to lift the so-called May 24 economic sanctions imposed by former President Lee Myung-bak in the aftermath of the sinking of the South Korean naval ship Cheonan in March 2010. The sanctions ban most government-level assistance and cross-border business.

“After the Iran nuclear problem has been solved, only North Korea remains,” former Unification Minister Jeong Se-hyun said. “In order to draw North Korea into the international community - rather than leaving the task to China, which is not likely to do the bidding of the United States - South Korea has to step forward. And for this, a paradigm change in policy is needed from the South Korean government to resolve inter-Korean relations.”

“At a point when China cannot take the lead, South Korea has to,” Moon Chung-in, a political science professor at Yonsei University, said. “That is the way China can play a part as well. There has to be cooperation between South Korea and China in order for North Korea to respond.”

BY SPECIAL REPORTING TEAM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]

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