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South Korea Anticipates North-IAEA Inspections Talks in Near Future

South Korea's Foreign Ministry on Thursday said it anticipates that North Korea would in short order begin talks with the International Atomic Energy Agency on resumption of monitoring at the Yongbyon nuclear complex, the Yonhap News Agency reported (see GSN, March 13).

Pyongyang last month agreed to halt uranium enrichment and other atomic operations at Yongbyon under the watch of the U.N. nuclear watchdog in exchange for 240,000 metric tons of food assistance from the United States. The agreement also calls for the North not to carry out further nuclear or long-range missile tests.

It has been nearly three years since IAEA inspectors were ejected from North Korea, which also in April 2009 formally abandoned six-nation negotiations on shuttering its nuclear program. The Stalinist state carried out its second nuclear trial detonation in May of that year and in November 2010 unveiled a uranium enrichment program that could be used to produce nuclear-weapon material.

"We expect consultations (between North Korea and the IAEA) for the monitoring to take place at an early date," South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Byung-jae told reporters.

Seoul wants Pyongyang to conduct "smooth consultations with the IAEA on monitoring modalities" and "swiftly go forward with the IAEA inspections," according to Cho.

The North's lead nuclear negotiator on Monday offered corresponding comments, saying IAEA monitoring at Yongbyon would begin "at an early date" (Yonhap News Agency, March 15).

Meanwhile, North Korea's new leader, Kim Jong Un, recently directed live-ammunition exercises in accordance with regime efforts to show he is a capable military leader, the Associated Press reported on Wednesday (see GSN, Feb. 2).

The presence of Kim at the military exercise, which encompassed all North Korean armed force services, is in line with other trips to military units he has made since assuming power in December.

Pyongyang in recent weeks has made repeated hostile statements toward South Korea for its routine joint military maneuvers with the United States. The heated rhetoric comes even after the U.S.-North Korean agreement, which raised hopes that the long-stalled six-party talks could eventually be relaunched.

Kim directed North Korean military personnel to respond "mercilessly" to any affront, state-controlled media said.

North Korean television displayed shots of truck-based artillery units and warships, along with fighter planes launching strikes on sea-based targets (Hyung-Jin Kim, Associated Press/Yahoo!News, March 15).

South Korea is preparing for another large-scale drill not far from a contested maritime boundary line with the North in the Yellow Sea, Agence France-Presse reported on Wednesday.

The South Korean Defense Ministry said the late March exercise would encompass naval vessels, fighter aircraft and marines.

"It may come around March 26, but details have yet to be fixed," an unidentified defense official said.

The drill is being held to commemorate the passage of two years since the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan. Seoul has blamed a North Korea for the incident, which killed 46 sailors.

The upcoming drill will display "our firm readiness to punish" any hostiles by North Korea, a high-ranking defense official said to journalists (Agence France-Presse/Google News, March 14).

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