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Seoul to up pressure on N.K. nuke program

Evaluating the outcome of the U.S.-China summit as positive, South Korea repeated on Thursday that the resumption of any kind of dialogue with North Korea “depended fully” upon the nuclear-armed state’s earnest intent to halt provocations and disarm.

Overcoming their once-divided view on how to deal with Pyongyang’s growing belligerence, U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao agreed in a summit Thursday, Korean time, that the North must stop provocations and halt its nuclear ambitions.

Leaders of the two rival powers also agreed that inter-Korean dialogue was an “essential step” in reducing tensions, echoing Seoul’s position that North Korea must first mend ties with its rival South to resume larger-scale talks with regional powers.

Obama and Hu also “expressed concern” regarding Pyongyang’s claimed uranium enrichment program, according to a statement later released by the White House, a rare move by China to admit the existence of the potentially dangerous program that could be used for nuclear weapons development.

“We view as positive the fact the two sides together expressed concerns about the uranium enrichment program and provocations by North Korea,” South Korea’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Kim Young-sun said. “We hope to see North Korea responding to the coordinated move (by regional powers) soon.”
U.S. President Barack Obama (right) and his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao hold a press conference in the East Room at the White House in Wwashington, D.C. on Wednesday. (AFP-Yonhap News)
U.S. President Barack Obama (right) and his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao hold a press conference in the East Room at the White House in Wwashington, D.C. on Wednesday. (AFP-Yonhap News)

Washington plans to send an envoy to Seoul as early as next week to debrief Seoul on the results of the summit. Either Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg or Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell is expected to come, according to multiple officials at the ministry.

Seoul’s Unification Ministry called North Korea’s attitude “the key” to the current situation.

The ministry, which handles affairs with North Korea, has been snubbing Pyongyang’s call for unconditional and immediate inter-Korean dialogue, dismissing it as a ploy to secure aid.

“We are now all waiting for North Korea to make an earnest move,” an official at the ministry said.

Regional powers have been discussing conditions under which they can resume peace talks with Pyongyang, which conducted two deadly attacks against Seoul and unveiled a new uranium enrichment facility last year.

South Korea, which had dozens of sailors and two civilians killed in the attacks by North Korea, has been demanding Pyongyang make a sincere apology to restore relations, a critical condition to restart talks with Seoul as well as the U.S., Japan, China and Russia.

While apparently suffering from deepening food shortages, the Kim Jong-il regime has been reluctant to admit responsibility in attacking Seoul and has not taken any action to prove its willingness to disarm as it previously agreed under a 2005 pact with dialogue partners.

The six-party aid-for-denuclearization talks have been stalled since the end of 2008, when Pyongyang left the negotiating table and conducted its second atomic test.

Among members of the multinational talks, China is considered to have the most influence over Pyongyang as its last-remaining ally and largest financial donor. The U.S. thus considers China a vital player in attempts to contain North Korean aggression against South Korea and curb its development of nuclear weapons.

Pyongyang unveiled a new uranium enrichment facility to outside experts November last year, indicating its ongoing nuclear ambitions. Uranium, if highly enriched, can be weapons-grade, giving Pyongyang a second way of building nuclear weapons after its existing program based on plutonium.

Snubbing international pressure to help rein in North Korea’s growing belligerence, however, Beijing has been calling for an unconditional resumption of the six-nation talks and never officially mentioned Pyongyang’s uranium activities.

“The fact that the two sides called inter-Korean relations essential indicates the fact that all related countries agree dialogue between the two Koreas should come before the resumption of the six-party talks,” another ministry official said. “This is the biggest step forward by China so far.”

But experts and officials here cautioned against hasty optimism.

“The agreements by the U.S. and China are actually quite theoretical,” an unnamed diplomatic source said. “This does not change the fact that China refuses to condemn the North for its provocations and will not change its position at the U.N. Security Council.”

A North Korean expert here said “there was much more to be done” for the two strongest regional powers to “come to a full agreement” on North Korea.

“South Korea will continue to feel the pressure to start inter-Korean dialogue,” said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor at Seoul’s Dongguk University.

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