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U.S. more cautious on N.K. threats

Expert warns of Pyongyang’s possible missile test-firing, more provocations this year

As regional powers coordinate terms under which they can resume peace talks with North Korea, Washington appears to be growing more cautious about what impatience and instability could push the nuclear-armed state to do.

Nuclear and missiles threats by the impoverished communist state go “beyond the region to the United States specifically,” U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen told a foreign press gathering in Washington, urging coordinated measures by partners of the stalled multinational dialogue.

The partners of the six-nation talks ― involving the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia ― have been increasing efforts to come together on ways to restart the dialogue aimed at disarming Pyongyang.

The comments by Mullen come as Pyongyang ― which has been going through a wobbly power transition from its ailing dictator Kim Jong-il to his inexperienced youngest and son ― has been making peace gestures toward Seoul since the beginning of the year.

North Korea, which conducted two deadly attacks against Seoul last year, appears to have realized that inter-Korean dialogue is its only hope of resuming larger-scale talks with regional powers and securing much needed aid, analysts say.

“It’s a really dangerous time,” Adm. Mullen said, noting the power transfer and new uranium enrichment activities in Pyongyang. “The succession plan usually shows or generates a series of provocations.”

“It is important for all of us to bring as much pressure as we can ... to ensure that we can deter the leadership in North Korea during what we believe is a time of succession,” Mullen said, emphasizing, in particular, the need to engage the stubborn China in the coordinated move.

The six-party talks have been stalled since December 2008, when Pyongyang left the negotiating table and conducted a second atomic test months later.

While North Korea’s two traditional allies, China and Russia, have been calling for an immediate resumption of the talks, the U.S., Japan and South Korea have been keener to condemn and further isolate the communist state for its provocations that killed dozens of South Korean sailors and two civilians last year.

In an interview with a local media outlet Thursday, Seoul’s Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan repeated doubts about the veracity of Pyongyang’s proposal for talks, saying “necessary measures must first be taken.”

“For the two Koreas to talk, North Korea must first take the responsibility for its provocations (last year) and make us believe there will not be any further provocations,” he said.

Despite its tough rhetoric, however, Seoul will have to agree on holding talks with Pyongyang sooner or later to avoid further military conflicts and the possibility of being left on the sidelines of negotiations that have a direct effect on the peninsula, analysts say.

Supporting this theory, the two Koreas restored an important cross-border communication channel Wednesday for the first time since Seoul cut off all dialogue channels, accusing the North of torpedoing its warship.

Having suffered several economic and diplomatic conflicts with Beijing last year, Washington is largely expected to opt to work with the world’s second-largest economy in dealing with Pyongyang. On Jan. 19, U.S. President Barack Obama will meet with Chinese leader Hu Jintao in Washington.

Other U.S. officials and experts are also echoing Mullen’s concerns, indicating the growing need to both pressure and appease North Korea.

During his trip to Beijing, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Pyongyang’s missiles and nuclear weapons “will pose a threat to the U.S. within five years.”

“With the North Koreans’ continuing development of nuclear weapons and their development of intercontinental ballistic missiles, North Korea is becoming a direct threat to the United States,” said Gates, who arrived in Japan Thursday to further discuss the growing concerns on the peninsula.

He also called on North Korea to impose a moratorium on nuclear and missile testing, the first direct comments by a senior U.S. official on the terms of reviving the stalled multinational talks.

Bruce Klingner of Washington’s think tank Heritage Foundation also warned the North Korean regime might continue provocations this year and possibly conduct another missile test.

In a column published on The Wall Street Journal, the U.S. expert on Korea also called on Washington and its allies to beef up preparations for any possible scenario.

North Korea conducted atomic tests in 2006 and 2009, and is believed to be capable of developing nuclear warheads small enough to be mounted on ballistic missiles.

North Korea also unveiled a new uranium enrichment facility to a visiting U.S. scientist in November, sparking concerns over a third nuclear test and increasing fears over nuclear threats. The facility could serve as a second way of producing nuclear bombs with highly enriched uranium.

By Shin Hae-in and news reports  (hayney@heraldcorp.com)
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