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North Korea, U.S. to Hammer Out Details on Food Assistance

North Korean and U.S. representatives are slated to convene this week in Beijing to hammer out details for an agreement that would provide badly needed nutritional assistance to the North in exchange for a host of concessions on its nuclear operations, including suspension of uranium enrichment, Agence France-Presse reported (see GSN, March 2).

Special envoy on North Korean human rights Robert King beginning on Wednesday is to hold talks with the North on the provision and monitoring of food assistance, according to U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

"The idea is to finalize all of the technical arrangements so that the nutritional assistance can begin to move," she said.

Washington and Pyongyang announced last week they had reached agreement on a deal that would send 240,000 metric tons of food assistance to the impoverished nation in return for the North implementing a moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests, ceasing uranium enrichment and other "nuclear activities" at the Yongbyon complex, and permitting International Atomic Energy Agency monitors to return to the site to confirm that specific atomic activities have been halted as promised (Agence France-Presse/Google News, March 3).

The bilateral meeting this week in Beijing is anticipated to also cover the sequence by which food will be provided  to the North and the timing of verifying that promised shutdown activities have taken place, the Korea Herald reported (Kim Yoon-mi, Korea Herald, March 4).

If the so-called Leap Day Deal is enacted as outlined, it could eventually lead to a revival of the moribund six-party talks that seek a permanent end to North Korea's nuclear weapons program. A halt of uranium enrichment work had been a chief U.S. condition for any relaunch of the negotiations  that also include China, Japan, Russia and South Korea. The six-party talks, last held in December 2008, propose to reward Pyongyang's phased denuclearization with timed infusions of energy assistance, other forms of foreign aid, and international security pacts. 
 
The bilateral nuclear deal notably did not include mention of another key U.S. demand -- that Pyongyang improve relations with Seoul before the multinational aid-for-denuclearization negotiations are resumed, AFP reported.
 
North Korea on Friday threatened a "sacred war" against the Seoul as punishment for South Korean troops' alleged insult of Pyongyang's supreme leadership.
 
Pyongyang's hostile rhetoric "is unfortunate," Nuland said. "Frankly, it's not helpful to the kind of environment that we're trying to foster."
 
"We continue to say to the D.P.R.K. and make clear to them that from our perspective, a condition of being able to go back to the six-party talks includes continuing to improve their relationship with the ROK," the spokeswoman said (AFP).
 
While the Leap-Day Deal has been well received by the other participants to the six-party talks, there have been no hints that China, Japan, South Korea or Russia are considering separate accords of their own with North Korea, the Wall Street Journal reported last week.
 
"We welcome the U.S. and North Korea advancing an earnest and constructive dialogue," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said.
 
A South Korean government official said nuclear discussions were a different matter than North-South talks.
 
New North Korean leader Kim Jong Un walks away from the deal with the United States with enhanced domestic standing as he has shown an ability to win concessions from Washington and provide food for his people. The Obama administration, meanwhile, gains some limited relief from worrying about North Korea's march toward a reliable and credible nuclear deterrent at a time when concerns about Iran's atomic development are increasingly consuming the White House's attention (see related GSN story, today).
 
"For the first time since the six-party process started in 2003, all of the countries are facing fragile domestic politics," Yonsei University dean Lee Chung-min said. "No one has the wherewithal to have a commanding voice in the process at the moment and no one is going to spend political capital to make it happen."
 
The nuclear shutdown deal cannot guarantee that all of North Korea's suspected atomic activities have been halted as it only permits IAEA inspectors into Yongbyon. The Stalinist state is believed by many experts to have established uranium enrichment sites in other parts of the country (Evan Ramstad, Wall Street Journal, March 1).
 
Meanwhile, both Pyongyang and Seoul's representatives to the six-party talks are slated to attend a three-day security forum this week in New York state, the Herald reported.
 
North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho will be a participant at the conference organized by Syracuse University while his South Korean opposite, Lim Sung-nam, is to observe the proceedings scheduled from Wednesday through Friday.
 
On Saturday, Ri is expected to take part in a meeting organized by the National Committee on American Foreign Policy. Both U.S. special envoy on North Korea policy Glyn Davies and U.S. envoy  to the six-nation talks Clifford Hart have been asked to attend the meeting, the Yonhap News Agency reported (Kim, Korea Herald).
 
Should North Korea actually carry out its promised atomic shutdown, Seoul is prepared to consider Pyongyang's longstanding call for a light-water reactor, a South Korean government official told Yonhap.
 
 "If North Korea makes good progress on denuclearization, we can discuss the (light-water nuclear reactor) issue as the next step," the anonymous source said.
 
The September 2005 six-party talks joint statement committed participants of the regional talks "to discuss, at an appropriate time, the subject of the provision” of a light-water reactor to the North for the purposes of atomic energy generation.
 
"But we demand the North return to the frames of the [Nuclear] Nonproliferation Treaty and the International Atomic Energy Agency and comply with all international regulations. Then we will discuss the issue," the South Korean official said. "So this is not an issue being discussed yet."
 
Pyongyang has said if the six-party talks are restarted, it will prioritize the light-water reactor issue as well as the lifting of sanctions (Yonhap News Agency, March 4).
 
Meanwhile, Kim Jong Un took the unusual step in recent days of putting himself in direct firing distance of South Korean soldiers when he visited a North Korean border post at Panmunjon, the New York Times reported on Sunday.
 
The young dictator has taken pains since assuming power following the December death of his father, Kim Jong Il, to display the sort of strong military command that his father and grandfather were both known for.
 
 “If there is a fight erupting, our military and people will have the enemy  kneeling before us to sign not a truce this time but a document of surrender,” the state-controlled Korean Central News Agency quoted Kim as saying (Choe Sang-hun, New York Times, March 4).

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