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North Korea Signals Willingness to Halt Uranium Enrichment in Return For Food

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un applauds with military personnel as he inspects an army tank division on Jan. 1. Pyongyang on Wednesday hinted it might consider suspending its uranium enrichment program in exchange for incentives such as U.S. food aid (AP Photo/Korean Central News Agency). North Korean leader Kim Jong Un applauds with military personnel as he inspects an army tank division on Jan. 1. Pyongyang on Wednesday hinted it might consider suspending its uranium enrichment program in exchange for incentives such as U.S. food aid (AP Photo/Korean Central News Agency).

North Korea on Wednesday suggested it was open to halting its enrichment of uranium, a process that can generate nuclear-weapon material, in return for concessions that are likely to include food assistance from the United States, the Washington Post reported (see GSN, Jan. 10).

A statement said to be from a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman urged the Obama administration to "build confidence" by including a greater amount of food in a bilateral agreement reportedly struck late last year shortly before the sudden death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

While rebuking the United States for connecting food assistance to security concerns, the statement was less bombastic than the proclamations that are typically issued by the Stalinist state.

The statement marked the first time Pyongyang made a public pronouncement about the rumored talks with Washington on a deal for food assistance in exchange for some nuclear disarmament steps.

Washington has demanded that Pyongyang halt uranium enrichment efforts unveiled in 2010 as one condition to the resumption of broader North Korean denuclearization negotiations that also involve China, Japan, Russia and South Korea. Though Pyongyang for some time has expressed willingness to returning to the six-party talks it abandoned in April 2009, it has balked at agreeing to any preconditions.

The Obama administration has been exceedingly wary about agreeing to any concessions with Pyongyang, which has a long track record of agreeing to nuclear disarmament actions in return for foreign assistance only to reverse course once it has attained certain benefits.

Eventually, "there will be a deal," said MacArthur Foundation President Robert Gallucci, a former lead U.S. envoy on North Korea. "We'll be giving them (aid) and trying to buy them off. Some people will say they'll never give up their nuclear weapons program. Others say we've got to try. It's deja vu."

Washington halted food assistance to the North after the regime carried out what was widely seen as a test of its long-range ballistic missile technology in spring 2009 (Chico Harlan, Washington Post, Jan. 11).

"The North is saying it is willing to go ahead with nuclear steps if it gets the food aid it wants," Dongguk University North Korea specialist  Koh Yu-hwan told the Associated Press.  "The North is telling the United States to provide a goodwill gesture. If Washington doesn't, Pyongyang is threatening it will go down its own path."

The international community is concerned  that new North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, youngest son of Kim Jong Il, might order a new missile launch or nuclear weapons test as a means of burnishing his domestic reputation. The Foreign Ministry statement, though hints that Kim could instead seek to use the extraction of food concessions from Washington to promote his leadership (Kim/Klug, Associated Press/Time, Jan. 11).

Expert opinion on the matter is by no means settled. An official South Korean think tank on Wednesday warned Pyongyang in 2012 would probably carry out a new nuclear detonation or another missile test, Reuters reported.

"North Korea could raise tension by test-launching a missile and conducting a third nuclear test as Kim Jong Un needs to demonstrate his leadership and consolidate his grip on the regime," the Institute for Foreign Affairs and National Security said in a new analysis.

Kim Jong Un is only in his 20s and has scant military experience; he is understood by foreign observers to need to improve his standing with his country's powerful National Defense Commission.

The South Korean think tank said a new nuclear test might employ highly enriched uranium instead of the plutonium used in North Korea's previous two nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009. Pyongyang announced it was enriching uranium in late 2010 but insists the material would only be used for atomic energy generation.

Experts are doubtful North Korea will actually undertake irreversible denuclearization as it views its nuclear weapons program as crucial to winning international concessions and to keeping a feared invading South Korean or U.S. force at bay (Jeremy Laurence, Reuters, Jan. 11).

Meanwhile, Tokyo's senior representative to the moribund six-nation negotiations is slated to visit the South this week for talks on the North Korean nuclear impasse, the Yonhap News Agency reported.

Japanese nuclear envoy Shinsuke Sugiyama is to meet with his South Korean opposite, Lim Sung-nam, who earlier this week met with the Chinese envoy to the nuclear talks, Wu Dawei, a South Korean Foreign Ministry source said.

Japan is also in discussions with South Korea and the United States to set up a time for Sugiyama, Lim and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell to meet (Yonhap News Agency/Korea Times, Jan. 11).

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