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U.S. State Department Says Engagement Option Still Available to North Korea

A senior U.S. State Department official in testimony before a House Foreign Affairs sub-panel on Wednesday said the Obama administration was still open to diplomacy with North Korea so long as it is substantive, the Yonhap News Agency reported (see GSN, June 6).

"The United States is prepared to engage constructively with North Korea, but its new leadership must understand that there will be no rewards for provocations," Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Jim Zumwalt told the Asia and Pacific subcommittee.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has been ruling the isolated country since his father, Kim Jong Il, passed away in December. The young regime has already demonstrated it intends to follow the militaristic policies of its predecessor. In mid-April, Pyongyang defied the wishes of the international community by launching a long-range rocket, an action that was widely seen as a cover for a new ballistic missile test. Though the launch was a failure, the U.N. Security Council strongly condemned the North and warned it would be punished for any future provocations.

The aspiring nuclear power is also believed to be preparing to detonate a third atomic device. Previous nuclear tests took place in 2006 and 2009. A third trial could be expected to bring the Stalinist country closer to possessing a credible nuclear deterrent.

Zumwalt said U.S. cooperation with South Korea could not be better and that Washington is still "determined and prepared" to relaunch a long-paralyzed regional process focused on permanently ending North Korea's nuclear weapons program. The six-nation talks encompass China, Japan, the two Koreas, Russia, and Japan; the aid-for-denuclearization negotiations were last held in late 2008.

The U.S. envoy avoided answering a question on what would happen if Seoul and Washington are unable to agree on a new civilian atomic trade agreement when the current one expires in 2014. Zumwalt said the two countries are focused on reaching a successful replacement trade deal.

The South is hoping a new bilateral accord would allow it to process atomic material to produce more reactor fuel. However, the Obama administration has been cautious about permitting the introduction of the technology, which could be used to produce warhead-grade material and frustrate multinational efforts to achieve a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.

"South Korea shares this concern with us ... about proliferation of materials that could be used in manufacturing nuclear weapons," the deputy assistant secretary said (Lee Chi-dong, Yonhap News Agency, June 7).

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