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N.Korea Says IAEA to Return to Nuke Site at "Early Date"

North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho, shown last month, on Monday said the International Atomic Energy Agency could restart visits to his country "at an early date" (AP Photo/Kim Kwang Hyon). North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho, shown last month, on Monday said the International Atomic Energy Agency could restart visits to his country "at an early date" (AP Photo/Kim Kwang Hyon).

North Korea's senior nuclear negotiator on Monday said International Atomic Energy Agency officials would "at an early date" resume inspections in the nation, Agence France-Presse reported (see GSN, March 12).

Inspectors from the U.N. agency would return in accordance with a deal reached late last month by the United States and North Korea. The agreement would provide the Stalinist state with badly needed food assistance in return for its commitment to halt uranium enrichment work and other "nuclear activities" at the Yongbyon atomic complex and to implement a moratorium on long-range missile and nuclear tests. The U.N. nuclear watchdog is to verify Pyongyang's compliance with the deal.

The North ejected IAEA inspectors nearly three years ago.

"It (the return) will come at an early date," the Yonhap News Agency quoted North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho as saying in New York, where he took part in a security conference and private forum. "Concrete measures are being constantly taken to fulfill the February agreement."

State Department spokesman Mark Toner on Monday said the United States would begin sending the first of the promised 240,000 metric tons of food to North Korea "as soon as possible."

The bilateral agreement has raised prospects to their highest point in years that the long-paralyzed process aimed at permanent North Korean denuclearization could be relaunched. The aid-for-denuclearization negotiations involve China, Japan, both Koreas, Russia and the United States. They were last held in December 2008.

Ri said his government was prepared for further engagement should the White House desire to enhance bilateral relations. He said an end to hostility between the two nations would allow for the resolution of longstanding differences.

He was more negative, though, on prospects for an improvement in North-South ties and asserted Seoul had reneged on promises it made to Pyongyang in 2000 and 2007. "We are willing to go hand in hand should the South respect the declarations and implement them. But the South does not seem to be willing to do so yet" (Agence France-Presse/Google News, March 13).

Ri told U.S. issue experts at a private seminar over the weekend  that Washington should establish an official point-of-contact office in Pyongyang and suggested his government could do the same in the U.S. capital, informed insiders told the Yomiuri Shimbun.

The anonymous sources said Pyongyang could be seeking to capitalize on the momentum from the recent nuclear shutdown deal. The two sides have met formally three times in the last year. At present, the main line of communication between the two countries is North Korea's U.N. mission in New York (Yoshikazu Shirakawa, Daily Yomiuri, March 13).

Seoul on Tuesday responded positively to Ri's comments that the U.N. nuclear watchdog would soon return to the North, Kyodo News reported.

"It's a really positive response if North Korea accepts inspectors from the IAEA," Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Byung-jae said to journalists.

"We hope the North moves quickly to take preparatory steps which will lead to the resumption of the six-party talks," he said (Kyodo News I, March 13).

South Korean Unification Minister Yu Woo-ik, while welcoming the U.S.-North Korean deal, emphasized it was too soon "to conclusively assess" the measure, Yonhap reported.

"But it is a good signal that the government in the North is willing to move," Yu said in an interview with the German Der Spiegel magazine.

"If the announced steps are indeed implemented, then it will achieve the precondition for new talks -- also with an expanded number of parties, as we have always demanded," the minister said. "Now we will have to see how dependable this announcement really is."

Pyongyang has a history of breaching denuclearization accords and pulling out of diplomatic talks once it has extracted concessions from its foreign negotiating partners (Yonhap News Agency I, March 12).

Yonsei University professor Kim Yong-soon was doubtful North Korea's agreement to shut down nuclear work was a sign of a changed posture under new leader Kim Jong Un, the Korea Herald reported. The youngest son of former dictator Kim Jong Il assumed leadership after his father died unexpectedly in December.

"The move by the North Koreans to accept the latest deal seems to be for two reasons: one is to buy time for the completion of their regime transfer, and two is for economic reasons. ... Only time will tell, but as of now, there seem to be no indications as to suggest that this deal is any different (from previous promises to halt its nuclear activities)," the expert said.
 
Sejong Institute President Song Dae-sung was also pessimistic: “North Korea’s latest concessions are not sincere. There is no chance that the North Koreans would ever surrender their nuclear development program."
 
Pyongyang's pledge to halt work on activities that could give it a verifiable and credible nuclear weapon actually gives the Stalinist regime what it wants, Song said. "This willingness is fake, but it will help for a while."
 
“In the long run, they hope to make a deal about arms restriction, as opposed to disarmament. In other words, they are willing to freeze their nuclear program, if they are paid a hefty fee, and explicitly or implicitly allowed to keep some stockpiles of plutonium and/or nuclear devices. Thus, they will kill two birds with one stone: They will reap the benefits of being a recipient of large aid while they will remain secure from the threat of a foreign invasion or foreign support of a local insurgency," he said.
 
Stephen Haggard of the Korea-Pacific Program at the University of California, was more hopeful about the chances of a final resolution being reached to the North Korean nuclear weapons dispute. 
 
“The negotiations will not be easy, and the U.S. and ROK will need to address North Korean security concerns and probably provide some economic inducements as well, including some discussion of light-water reactors,” he said.
 
Kim said he does not see much that South Korea can do in the near future to convince North Korea to surrender its nuclear weapons program. He advised a mix of concessions and hard-line policies for dealing with Pyongyang and also cautioned against the Sough Korean government depending overly on other nations.
 
"In the long term, the South has to work to alter the rigid threat perception that North Korea has  -- that is seeing the South and its alliance with the U.S. as a real and immediate threat to its survival. Again, this is made more difficult given that the North regime has been using this perceived outside threat to justify its rigid rule over its populace" (John Power, Korea Herald, March 12).
 
Separately, U.S. President Obama could take a trip to the Demilitarized Zone dividing the two Koreas when he travels to the South in late March to take part in the second Nuclear Security Summit, Yonhap reported (see related GSN story, today).
 
An unidentified diplomatic insider said the U.S. leader is likely to travel to the sector on March 27 after the summit (Yonhap News Agency II, March 12).
 
Elsewhere, Tokyo intends to renew national penalties targeting Pyongyang for an additional year because there has been no real advancement in addressing the matter of North Korean kidnappings of Japanese citizens, government insiders told Kyodo on Monday.
 
The sanctions would be renewed starting on April 13. They have been in place since Pyongyang carried out its first nuclear test in 2006, Kyodo reported (Kyodo News II/Mainichi Daily News, March 13).

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