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Mixed Signals Over North Korean Desire To Return To Nuke Talks

North Korean nuclear facility, Yongbyon.
by Jun Kwanwoo
Seoul (AFP) Oct 23, 2006
Conflicting signals emerged Monday about North Korea's willingness to return to stalled negotiations on its nuclear ambitions as the next UN chief prepared for talks in China on the crisis triggered by Pyongyang's first atom bomb test.

One South Korean legislator said North Korea was willing to return to six-nation nuclear disarmament talks if the United States promised to lift a freeze on its accounts, after a meeting with an unidentified North Korean official.

But a Japanese envoy said in Beijing that China was "not optimistic" about Pyongyang abandoning its nuclear weapons program nor returning to the talks, although he believed the Stalinist regime had shown signs of flexibility.

Former Japanese vice foreign minister Ichiro Aisawa held talks Monday with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wu Dawei, who joined a Chinese delegation to Pyongyang last week for a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il.

"Vice Foreign Minister Wu said that at this moment, China is not optimistic about the resumption of the six-party talks or about North Korea's nuclear abandonment," Aisawa told a news conference in Beijing afterwards.

But Aisawa also quoted Wu as saying: "North Korea showed some flexibility. (China) is negotiating with the United States to check if it can also show flexibility."

South Korean lawmaker Choi Sung of the ruling Uri Party said he held talks Sunday night in Beijing with a "key North Korean official," whom he declined to identify, who said any decision by the North to hold a second nuclear weapons test depended on Washington's attitude.

It was the latest in a series of reports suggesting that the communist state will pull back from the brink of a second test, which would be certain to spark harsher sanctions.

"It does not matter whether it will be a six-way or bilateral meeting as long as we can verify a US willingness to lift financial sanctions and change its hostile policy towards North Korea," Choi quoted the official as saying.

Such a stance would be a softening of Pyongyang's previous position that it will never return to the talks unless the US lifted the sanctions first.

The UN Security Council voted unanimously to slap Pyongyang with a range of financial, trade and military restrictions after its October 9 atom bomb test, and urged the North to return to six-party talks.

North Korea agreed at the six-way talks in September 2005 to scrap its nuclear programmes in exchange for energy and other economic aid and security guarantees.

But it boycotted the forum two months later in protest at US action to freeze its accounts totalling 24 million dollars in Banco Delta Asia (BDA), after accusations that the accounts acted as a conduit for North Korea's counterfeiting of dollars and money-laundering.

Choi, a member of the South Korean foreign relations committee, said the North had "great expectations" for Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill's latest Hong Kong visit to help settle the issue positively.

Hill was in Hong Kong Sunday to discuss issues including North Korean links with Macau banks.

Adding to the diplomacy, a South Korean official said Ban Ki-Moon, the South Korean foreign minister just named to take over as head of the United Nations, will visit China on Friday for talks on the North Korea crisis.

South Korea's Yonhap news agency, which first reported the trip last week, said Ban would be going in his capacity as the world body's next leader and not as Seoul's foreign minister.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice earlier returned home after a four-nation tour of Asia and Russia, in an effort to rally international support for UN sanctions.

Rice cast doubt Sunday on a newspaper report that said Kim had expressed regret to a Chinese envoy over the test.

"The Chinese, in a fairly thorough briefing about the talks, said nothing about such an apology for having launched a test," she said.

Australia's defense minister Brendan Nelson said Monday that its navy was prepared to help intercept and inspect cargo ships travelling to and from North Korea as part of the sanctions.

earlier related report
China not optimistic about NKorea disarmament: Japanese envoy
Beijing (AFP) Oct 23 - China is not optimistic about North Korea abandoning its nuclear weapons program but believes Pyongyang has shown signs of flexibility in ending the crisis, a Japanese envoy said here Monday.

Former vice foreign minister Ichiro Aisawa held talks Monday morning with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wu Dawei, who joined a Chinese delegation to Pyongyang last week for a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il.

"Vice Foreign Minister Wu said that at this moment, China is not optimistic about the resumption of the six-party talks or about North Korea abandoning nuclear" weapons, Aisawa told a news conference in Beijing.

Aisawa quoted Wu as saying: "North Korea showed some flexibility. (China) is negotiating with the United States to check if it can also show flexibility."

Wu is China's head delegate and chair of the six-party talks that involve the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia.

According to Aisawa, Wu also said the North Korean leader did not apologize for carrying out the test as had been indicated in some media reports.

In the trip to Pyongyang, Wu accompanied Chinese envoy Tang Jiaxuan, who on Thursday became the first foreign official to meet the reclusive Kim since North Korea conducted its atomic test on October 9.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters in Tokyo that Tang's visit to North Korea "was a significant step as the global community's concerns were directly conveyed to General Secretary Kim Jong-Il."

China has hosted several rounds of the six-party negotiations on ending the North's nuclear program in return for economic benefits and security guarantees.

The North has boycotted the talks since November. It says it will not return unless Washington ends financial sanctions imposed in September last year on a Macau bank accused of laundering cash for the regime in Pyongyang.

Japan took a hardline stance against Pyongyang's nuclear test, banning all North Korean imports. Tokyo remains on alert for possible further tests.

"As we understand it, North Korea has not ruled out more nuclear tests, depending on how the United States treats them," said Japanese Vice Foreign Minister Shotaro Yachi.

earlier related report
UN nuclear chief urges talks with North Korea, Iran
Washington (AFP) Oct 23 - International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei on Monday called for dialogue with North Korea and Iran on their nuclear policies.

"We need ... to bite the bullet and find the way to talk to them (North Koreans), to talk to the Iranians, to talk to all other adversaries because without dialogue we are not moving forward," ElBaradei said at Georgetown University in Washington, after meeting with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

"I think in all these issues, dialogue is indispensable. I think we have to move away from the idea that dialogue is a reward; dialogue is an essential tool to change behavior," the IAEA director general said.

"Export control is not sufficient ... we really need to go and understand ... why these countries are tempted to develop nuclear weapons," the head of the UN nuclear watchdog said.

ElBaradei acknowledged North Korea's first nuclear test on October 9 was a "setback" for the international nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but called it "a cry for help" by the North Korean regime, which believes its survival is threatened.

"I don't think sanctions work as a penalty," he said, in reference to UN Security Council sanctions imposed after Pyongyang's nuclear test.

In addition, he dismissed the idea that the test would have a domino effect in the region, pressing other countries, such as Japan and South Korea, to obtain their own nuclear weapons.

Iran is a different case, he said.

"From the Iran perspective, the key is to normalize relationships with the US," he said, adding that Iranians "would like to be respected, recognized as a regional power."

The State Department meanwhile rejected suggestions that Washington hold bilateral talks with North Korea over the nuclear issue, saying the method was used previously and failed.

Department spokesman Sean McCormack said "the idea that you deal with North Korea in a strictly bilateral sense is one that's been tried and, unfortunately, has failed."

The administration of US President George W. Bush had often cited the North's violation of its 1994 agreement with the previous Bill Clinton administration to justify the six-party talks in which the United States, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia deal jointly with North Korea. The multilateral talks have stalled since November 2005.

McCormack said Washington could talk directly to North Korea only within the context of the six-party talks.

Calls for bilateral discussions with Pyongyang, including from within Bush's Republican party, have grown louder following North Korea's nuclear test.

McCormack also said that ElBaradei had discussed with Rice a proposed international nuclear fuel bank.

"We have very similar views in terms of international fuel supply guarantees," McCormack said at a briefing with reporters.

The proposed nuclear fuel bank being debated at the IAEA is aimed at deterring countries such as Iran from developing their own means of uranium enrichment to make reactor fuel and possibly nuclear weapons.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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