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North Korea Said Holding Secret Talks With Japan

North Korea is reportedly holding unannounced discussions with Japan in what appears to be the two nations' first engagement following the death late last year of longtime dictator Kim Jong Il, Reuters reported on Tuesday (see GSN, Jan. 9).

Japanese news organizations said the talks on the North's kidnapping of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s were taking place in Beijing, even as the leaders and top nuclear negotiators from China and South Korea were also meeting in the Chinese capital to discuss the longstanding North Korean nuclear weapons impasse.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao "shared the view that denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula as well as peace and stability are of paramount importance and agreed to continue to closely consult and cooperate each other," according to Lee's office.

North Korean and Japanese officials are also understood to have talked about conditions for renewing bilateral negotiations, the Mainichi Daily News reported. While the talks were slated to end on Tuesday, they could close early or be lengthened on the basis of signs of headway, news reports said.

The last such discussions between Pyongyang and Tokyo occurred in August 2008.

Tokyo views Pyongyang's willingness to engage in the bilateral talks as an indication the new regime of Kim Jong Un "may be interested in improving relations with Japan through progress in the abduction issue," which has stood in the way of the two nations establishing full-scale ties, an informed insider said.

China, which hosts paralyzed regional talks aimed at North Korea's permanent denuclearization, has urged the other participants -- Japan, the two Koreas, Russia and the United States -- to return to the negotiating table in the wake of Kim Jong Il's death. The negotiations, after making limited progress on shuttering the North's atomic operations, were last held in December 2008 (Jeremy Laurence, Reuters, Jan. 10).

Meanwhile, South Korean Ambassador to Russia Wi Sung-lac on Tuesday said he anticipated the new Kim regime would maintain the militaristic policies of its predecessor and that indications point to an uneventful leadership transfer, the Yonhap News Agency reported.

The international community has nervously watched North Korea since the death of Kim Jong Il for any signs of internal instability. An abrupt regime collapse or power struggle in the Stalinist state is feared in the isolated nation that possesses several WMD programs.

"In the short run, it appears that the policies of Chairman Kim Jong Il will be inherited and most of his policy line will remain intact," Wi told Yonhap. "I also haven't received the impression that there will be any major differences regarding the nuclear issue."

"Considering that North Korea will continue the policies of Kim Jong Il's regime, I expect the process on denuclearization to be restored to its former state," said Wi, Seoul's former top representative to the six-nation talks. 

In 2011, Wi headed Seoul's team in two sessions of direct discussions with North Korea in accordance with efforts to draw Pyongyang back to the moribund aid-for-denuclearization negotiations. The engagement at present is largely stymied over the North's refusal to agree to the preconditions for new nuclear talks set by Seoul and Washington, which are demanding the North cease its uranium enrichment activities among other good faith gestures.

"I hope to see North Korea meet the preconditions we have set, thereby leading to the reopening of the six-party talks," Wi said (Yonhap News Agency, Jan. 10).

Separately, an expert analysis by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists contends that based on recent satellite photographs, the North's new uranium enrichment plant at the Yongbyon nuclear complex was likely preceded by a secret, more limited centrifuge plant. Uranium enrichment can provide fuel for nuclear reactors as well as nuclear weapons.

North Korea showed off its enrichment facility in November 2010 to U.S. nuclear weapons experts including Siegfried Hecker and Robert Carlin, who along with Niko Milonopoulos authored the analysis. Pyongyang has declined follow-up requests by the experts for another tour of the enrichment plant.

The specialists based their conclusion on grounds that the known enrichment facility would not have been ready to conduct uranium-related work at the time that North Korea's ambassador to the United Nations announced in September 2009 that "experimental uranium enrichment has successfully been conducted to enter into completion phase." 

The enrichment plant that Hecker and Carlin toured had been built within an existing structure and contained at least 2,000 centrifuges. It "was totally gutted and retrofitted with a clean modern heating and air conditioning system; the exterior was refurbished and covered with a new blue metal roof.  Moreover, we were told in November 2010 that the facility became operational only days before our arrival," the experts said.

In addition, new technology had to be delivered to the plant for production of oxide fuel pellets for the unfinished light-water reactor at Yongbyon, which the North says is intended for energy production, according to the analysis.

The authors said they believe work on the light-water reactor started in late September 2010, just months before they were given their tour. Overhead photographs taken in September 2011 indicate that significant progress continues to be made in construction at the site. 

"The reactor building containment dome is partially complete, and construction has begun on the turbine generator hall. ... On the north side of the reactor is the skeleton of a structure for transferring equipment into the reactor hall during annual maintenance outages," the report states.

A more photograph snapped in mid-November reveals that a majority of the reactor's outside features are close to being finished, according to the analysis. "Much progress has been made on the turbine generator hall; a traveling crane rail is already visible. The structure of the turbine pedestal inside the turbine building is already apparent."

"The reactor building containment dome on the east side of the reactor's containment structure is complete and will be placed on top of the containment structure once the large internal components of the reactor's core have been inserted," it adds. "For the first time, we see the appearance of small cylindrical components near the dome; these are likely parts of the pressure vessel that will go inside the containment structure."

The experts said they agreed North Korea is telling the truth about the light-water reactor being geared toward nuclear power generation. However, they disputed Pyongyang's assertion that it would complete work on the reactor this year.

The specialists said they do not think that Kim Jong Il's death has been "cataclysmic" to the overall North Korea situation. Still, they noted the chances of a new nuclear weapons test or another missile trial being conducted this year have potentially increased (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Jan. 6).

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