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U.S. Seeks "Monitored Shutdown" of North Korean Uranium Enrichment

The United States has proposed that the Kim Jong Un regime allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to oversee the mothballing of North Korea's uranium enrichment program as a prerequisite to the resumption of dormant aid-for-denuclearization negotiations, the Yonhap News Agency reported on Thursday (see GSN, Feb. 15).

Diplomats from Pyongyang and Washington are slated to meet on Feb. 23 in Beijing for the first bilateral talks since the unexpected December death of longtime North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Pyongyang's controversial uranium enrichment program is anticipated to be a chief focus of next week's meeting, an unidentified source in Washington said.

"The U.S. proposed a so-called monitored shutdown regarding the suspension of North Korea's uranium enrichment program, which is one of the core initial steps toward denuclearization," the source said.

Washington is prioritizing achieving a shutdown of the North's uranium program over persuading Pyongyang to readmit expelled IAEA monitors and to refrain from conducting new missile and nuclear tests, the source said.

Uranium enrichment can be used to produce weapon-grade nuclear material as well as reactor fuel.

"What is most important in the [upcoming] high-level dialogue ... is to confirm whether North Korea will implement initial steps toward denuclearization. It is a prerequisite for the resumption of the six-party talks," the source said.

The six-nation negotiations encompass China, Japan, the two Koreas, Russia and the United States. The negotiating framework proposes to reward North Korea's gradual shuttering of its nuclear weapons program with infusions of economic aid and international security guarantees. North Korea abandoned the process in spring 2009, shortly before it detonated its second nuclear test device (Yonhap News Agency, Feb. 16).

Envoys from the Koreas held undisclosed talks in the Chinese capital earlier this month that were aimed at improving relations between the two neighbors, ITAR-Tass reported.

Pyongyang had publicly taken the position that it would not engage with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak's administration, which has adopted a hard-line approach toward the North until it begins to shutter its nuclear program (ITAR-Tass, Feb. 16).

Meanwhile, China's widely presumed next leader is not expected to alter his nation's longtime support of North Korea or to more aggressively prod the Stalinist state toward denuclearization, the Korea Times reported on Wednesday.

During a high-profile visit to Washington this week, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping said his agenda would involve enacting the "important consensus" arrived at by Chinese President Hu Jintao and President Obama during a 2011 summit. (see GSN, Jan. 24, 2011). The two leaders agreed that North Korea's uranium program was a cause for concern and reaffirmed the importance of adhering to the September 2005 joint statement on North Korean denuclearization (Kim Young-jin, Korea Times, Feb. 15).

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