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China Signals Talks On North Korean Nukes To Restart Soon

Tang Jiaxuan, China's top foreign affairs official.

North Korea bans use of foreign currency
Seoul (AFP) Jan 25 - The government of cash-strapped North Korea has banned the use of foreign currency in domestic transactions in a bid to collect hard currency, a South Korean newspaper reported Thursday. The ban, which took effect on Monday, primarily targets the Stalinist state's foreign currency black market, whose notes and coins lie outside the government's reach. The prohibition follows international sanctions imposed on North Korea for its nuclear bomb test in October, which aggravated a shortage of foreign exchange, the Dong-a Ilbo newspaper said.

South Korean officials refused to confirm the report but said privately that the reported ban would be ineffective. "Even if it is confirmed to be true, I don't think the reported ban will help the regime collect hard currency from its citizens," a Unification Ministry official told AFP on condition of anonymity. "They would rather hide foreign currency deep in wardrobes," he said. The ministry is in charge of inter-Korean relations. Exchange rates on the black market were far higher than official ones before the ban. But foreign currency is used infrequently in the North.

From Monday North Koreans were told to exchange foreign currency for the North Korean won or checks at official booths, the newspaper said. The move sent the dollar's value falling sharply against the local currency in North Korea, it said. North Korea has made much of its money on the international black market, peddling everything from fake cigarettes to bogus US banknotes. But UN and other sanctions following its July missile launches and October nuclear test have crimped the illicit revenue stream. Experts say the North has also been hit hard by separate US financial sanctions, which effectively froze the regime's accounts at a bank in the Chinese territory of Macau. About 24 million dollars belonging to the North Korean leadership were frozen after the US claimed the bank had handled counterfeit currency and engaged in money-laundering for its North Korean clients.

by Staff Writers
Beijing (AFP) Jan 25, 2007
China signalled Thursday that a new round of six-nation talks on North Korea's nuclear programme would begin soon, following a burst of diplomatic activity that raised hopes of a breakthrough. Tang Jiaxuan, China's top foreign affairs official, told visiting South Korean Foreign Minister Song Min-Soon that he hoped the talks would resume before the Chinese New Year, which begins on February 18.

Although the official Xinhua news agency, which reported Tang's comments, said only he "hoped" the talks would resume by then, it backed recent comments from other parties in the six-nation forum that talks would resume quickly.

China is the host of the negotiations, which began in 2003 in an effort to curb North Korea's nuclear ambitions but failed to stop the reclusive nation from conducting an atomic test in October.

The talks also involve the two Koreas, the United States, Japan and Russia.

The most recent round of the talks, held in December following intense international condemnation and United Nations sanctions on North Korea for conducting the test, ended in deadlock.

North Korea refused to consider winding back its nuclear programme until the UN sanctions and separate US financial clamps on Pyongyang were removed.

However hopes for a possible breakthrough came after the US envoy to the talks, Christopher Hill, and his North Korean counterpart, Kim Kye-Gwan, held rare one-on-one discussions in Berlin this month.

Kim said in Beijing this week that he had detected a "positive change" in attitude from the United States during his talks with Hill, and that North Korea may be prepared to begin the process of disarming its nuclear programme.

Kim was in Beijing as part of a diplomatic flurry following the Berlin meetings, with Hill also in town on Sunday and Monday to separately brief the Chinese.

Hill also said in Beijing that he believed progress could be made at a new round of talks.

South Korea's Song arrived in Beijing on Thursday for a three-day visit to also discuss the North Korean issue.

"When I meet with Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing, we will try to solidify what the countries have discussed so far," Song told reporters in Seoul before flying to Beijing, in reference to the recent developments.

earlier related report
SKorea to boost nuclear blast detection
Seoul (AFP) Jan 25 - South Korea will buy two hi-tech systems so it can swiftly detect any second nuclear test by North Korea, it was announced Thursday. Seoul had to wait more than a fortnight before it could confirm the North's first nuclear test last October 9.

It finally confirmed the underground atomic explosion on October 25, more than a week after the United States did so.

There have been media reports that the North may be preparing for a second test at the same site, although most analysts expect it to await the outcome of international negotiations on its nuclear programme.

The new systems are the SAUNA II xenon gas detector from Sweden and the IAR noble gas analyser from Germany's Federal Office for Radiation Protection, Yonhap news agency said.

They are designed to detect minute atmospheric traces of certain "noble gases" including xenon-85 and krypton -- signs that a nuclear blast took place. South Korea leased a SAUNA II last year and used it to confirm Pyongyang's test. The two machines will be placed along the 250-kilometer (150-mile) Demilitarized Zone that separates the two nations.

The Korea Institute of Nuclear Safety will operate the 720,000 euro (929,000 dollar) SAUNA II, which will be bought around December, while the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute will operate the 200,000 euro IAR detector in April. President Roh Moo-Hyun said Thursday he did not know if the North will go ahead with a second test, but that the South was "fully prepared for any unexpected situation."

The Joint Chiefs of Staff said the previous day that Seoul would strengthen surveillance of the North's nuclear activity this year and build up defences.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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