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U.S., North Korea Expected to Discuss Nuke Issue Next Week, Report Claims

The United States and North Korea appear set to conduct new discussions next week on resuming a moribund process for shuttering the North's nuclear-weapon program, Kyodo News reported (see GSN, Dec. 14).

In a Washington-based report, the South Korean Munwha Ilbo newspaper said the third round this year of U.S.-North Korean nuclear talks could take place close to Dec. 22. No sources were identified in the article.

There have been recent conflicting reports on the likelihood of another set of talks in 2011 between Pyongyang and Washington.

The newspaper report said the Obama administration's posture is that the paralyzed six-party talks could be relaunched within the first six months of 2012 so long as headway is made at next week's direct discussions with North Korean officials. The rumored bilateral talks would take place in a third-party nation.

North Korea for some time sought resumption of the full nuclear talks that also involve China, Japan, Russia and South Korea and were last held three years ago. However, Washington and Seoul are refusing to return to the negotiating table until Pyongyang demonstrates its commitment to irreversible denuclearization. They are demanding the North halt all of its uranium enrichment work before negotiations are renewed, but the Stalinist state has refused to accept any preconditions.

South Korea and the United States have already held two separate rounds of talks with the North this year on the conditions necessary for the aid-for-denuclearization talks to be reconstituted.

Separately, the White House's special representative for North Korean human rights, Robert King, on Thursday met in Beijing with the North's lead official for U.S. engagement, Ri Gun. The meeting focused on the details of a potential resumption of U.S. food assistance to the North (Kyodo News, Dec. 15).

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said not to anticipate a rushed decision on whether to resume the food aid, the New York Times reported.

"We have said all along not only that we need to continue to assess need, but that were we to decide to go forward with this, we would need to have much more strict and clear monitoring systems in place," Nuland said.

The Obama administration does not want to see food assistance intended for starving North Korean civilians, particularly children, diverted to feed the country's armed forces.

Obama officials maintain there is no connection between the food aid discussions and the long-running nuclear dispute (Choe Sang-hun, New York Times, Dec. 15).

In Washington, the White House's former chief staffer for designing policy on North Korea said he was doubtful the aspiring nuclear power had achieved the gains in uranium enrichment it recently claimed.

Pyongyang recently asserted it had made substantial headway in enriching uranium to low levels for use in a light-water atomic reactor that is still under construction at its Yongbyon nuclear complex. The world received its first glimpse of the North's uranium work in November 2010 when the regime invited U.S. nuclear weapons expert Siegfried Hecker and other specialists to tour its new enrichment facility and the reactor site.

Ex-National Security Council East Asian Affairs senior director Jeffrey Bader told the Yonhap News Agency that  "frankly speaking, let's say there is considerable skepticism, to put it mildly, that North Korea built up this capacity [to enrich uranium] in one year between the time when they threw out the [International Atomic Energy Agency] inspectors and shut down the cameras at Yongbyon and they revealed to Dr. Hecker."

"A lot of people were surprised that [the uranium plant] was at Yongbyon, but no one was surprised that it existed," said Bader, who recently stepped down from his NSC role to join the Brookings Institution.

"Now, as to how far advanced it is, we don't have, frankly, a good assessment," Bader said (Lee Chi-dong, Yonhap News Agency, Dec. 15).

 

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