The United States intends to urge North Korea in bilateral talks next week to make clear the purpose of its enrichment of uranium -- a process that can produce nuclear-weapon material and reactor fuel, the Asahi Shimbun reported on Wednesday (see GSN, Feb. 14).
Envoys from Washington also anticipated to urge their North Korean counterparts to cease all uranium work at once.
The two sides are scheduled to convene on Feb. 23 in Beijing for their first meeting since the December death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il. Special envoy for North Korea Glyn Davies is set to represent the Obama administration.
Immediately prior to Kim's death, the North had reportedly indicated it was open to halting its uranium work in return for a shipment of food from the United States. The matter was put on hold after Kim died. However, suspension of uranium enrichment by Pyongyang would meet a key demand from South Korea and the United States for resuming the long-suspended multilateral negotiations on North Korean denuclearization.
Pyongyang used its U.N. office in New York to issue the meeting request, which was granted by the United States, according to insiders involved with North Korean nuclear talks.
The North probably took two months to signal it was ready for new talks as it now feels comfortable that the transfer of power to Kim Jong Un has gone smoothly, a South Korean government official said. "Because the issues within the new regime have become more or less settled, they likely decided to begin moves externally."
The timing of the talks is also delicate as South Korea and the United States are slated to stage bilateral military maneuvers that will last from the end of the month until the end of April. U.S.-South Korean exercises typically meet with harsh opposition from North Korea.
"It would have been difficult to move toward dialogue during those military exercises so now was the only time for such talks," a senior South Korean official told the Japanese newspaper (Murayama/Kaise, Asahi Shimbun,
Washington and Seoul are not overly optimistic that next week's meeting will result in significant headway toward resolving the long-running North Korean nuclear weapons impasse, the Voice of America reported on Tuesday.
The two allies are demanding that Pyongyang halt its uranium work, among other good-faith gestures, before paralyzed aid-for-denuclearization negotiations are resumed. The six-party talks aimed at permanently shutting down North Korea's nuclear weapons program were last held in December 2008. They encompass China, Japan, North and South Korea, Russia and the United States.
U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Sung Kim told a Seoul audience on Tuesday that "the focus of our discussions with them -- our bilateral discussion -- (has) been trying to test that proposition: will the North Koreans be a serious negotiating partner if the six-party talks resume."
South Korean Unification Ministry Vice Minister Kim Chun-sig said any form of engagement with the North that could help resolve the nuclear impasse is appreciated (Steve Herman, Voice of America,
Seoul is keeping close tabs on North Korea as the regime continues the transfer of power, the Yonhap News Agency reported.
The government is concerned that Pyongyang, in an attempt to bolster Kim's domestic standing, could launch fresh attacks on the South or carry out new missile and nuclear tests.
"Since the passing of Kim Jong Il last December, the situation in North Korea has been quite fluid," South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan said at a Tuesday event in the South Korean capital (Yonhap News Agency,
A key problem for the international community in trying to gage security threats emanating from North Korea is just how closed-off the nation is from the rest of the world.
"We know more about distant galaxies than we do about North Korea," an anonymous Western envoy told the New York Times.
The majority of observers feel strongly that Pyongyang will never fully give up a nuclear weapons program it believes to be the main reason the United States and South Korea have not invaded.
The 2011 toppling of the Muammar Qadhafi regime in Libya is believed to have only underlined that thinking for the North. Tripoli agreed to surrender its weapons of mass destruction in 2003 (see GSN
, March 25, 2011).
The experiences of the former Soviet Union and Saddam Hussein-controlled Iraq after the 1990 Gulf War have also had an influence on North Korean regime thinking.
"To put it bluntly, in the eyes of the North Korean leadership all three countries took the economic bait, foolishly disarmed themselves, and once they were defenseless, were mercilessly punished by the West," University of Vienna North Korea expert Rüdiger Frank said (Mark McDonald, New York Times
, Feb. 14).