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Tuesday, January 25, 2011     GET REAL

Nuclear nuance at last week's Obama-Hu confab

By Donald Kirk

SEOUL — The North Koreans don't like it, but the issue of their highly enriched uranium program is now up for negotiation.


Amid all the generalities uttered by United States President Barack Obama and China's President Hu Jintao at the White House last week, they did agree on one key word: "uranium."

That may not have been easy. Diplomatic analysts say the Americans insisted on getting "uranium" into their joint statement, and the Chinese finally said "OK, OK," after making sure the mention was more or less in passing.

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Now the South Koreans are saying the most significant result of the summit was that Obama and Hu "expressed concern" about North Korea's uranium enrichment while calling for "early resumption of the six-party talks," last held in Beijing in December 2008.

South Korea's Foreign Minister Kim Sung-Hwan said at a press conference on Tuesday that the two presidents had reaffirmed "their willingness to closely cooperate on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula."

Another Foreign Ministry official put the mention of uranium in stronger terms. "This is the first time the Chinese government has recognized the existence of the facility in North Korea," he noted, asking that his name not be used. Previously, he said, the Chinese "have had some doubts as to whether the new North Korean reactor is for nuclear weapons or electrical power."

The official could scarcely hide the sense of relief as he enlarged on the significance of that word "uranium" as agreed on by the leaders of the two big powers most closely identified with the two Koreas. "This," he said, "is a big development."

Or, as Wi Sung-Lac, South Korea's chief nuclear negotiator, put it, inclusion of that word "is a positive evolution". As for South Korea's influence in getting the word into the statement, he said simply, "We worked closely together with Washington."

Indeed, South Koreans are treating the expression of "concern" as a triumph and calling denuclearization "the most important pending security issue." It is especially significant since North Korea in November last year showed off its reactor for producing the uranium for nuclear warheads to an American scientist.

A senior official said resolution of the uranium issue and a freeze on North Korea's missile and nuclear programs "will be the litmus test to see if we can pursue any grand bargain." No way, he said, will the South settle for a deal that raises hopes but goes nowhere.

It was likely an allusion to the 1994 Geneva framework agreement under which North Korea shut down a five-megawatt reactor built to produce plutonium for warheads in exchange for the promise of twin light-water nuclear energy reactors. Under the deal, inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency rotated in and out of the Yongbyon nuclear complex, monitoring the reactor to make sure it stayed shut.

That deal flew apart in October 2002 when North Korea was revealed to have an entirely separate uranium-enrichment program. North Korea for years indignantly denied any idea of enriching uranium, but that strategy had apparently changed abruptly by the time that American nuclear physicist Siegfried Hecker was invited to the Yongbyon complex to look at a brand new 20-megawatt reactor built for the uranium program.

A sign of the North's discomfort was that Pyongyang's Korean Central News Agency's delayed the report, which mentioned the two presidents discussing the easing of North-South tensions, neglected to note the uranium reference, much less the "goal of complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula."

That crucial omission in the KCNA report leaves no doubt among South Koreans that North Korea has no notion of giving up its nukes even if talks resume on its nuclear program. Still, in the fight-talk routine of recent Korean history, analysts believe Obama and Hu reached a milestone of sorts.

At least "they recognized the problem of uranium enrichment," said Han Sung-Joo, a former foreign minister, "and China is clearly talking about North Korea violating the September 19 agreement," the statement agreed on at six-party talks in Beijing on Sept. 19, 2005, under which the North would give up its nuclear program in exchange for massive economic aid.

That done, South Korean strategists are determined not to let the process devolve into the usual war of words, deals made and broken, crisis on crisis. Times have changed, in the view of the Blue House, the center of presidential power.

In the past, said one official, "North Korea provokes, tension arises, North Korea suggests we resume dialogue, South Korea accepts and gives aid." That's not going to happen again, he said. "That's the pattern of the past."

The overriding question is that of the North's growing nuclear program, he said, and South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-Jin will make that clear when he sits down with his North Korean counterpart, probably next month, in talks requested by North Korea before the ink was barely dry on the Obama-Hu statement.

The timing of the North Korean proposal may be the most obvious dividend of the summit, and of Chinese pressure for easing tensions, but there's no getting around the failure of the North to say a thing about previous agreements on giving up its nukes.

The South Koreans are insisting they still need an "apology" for the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, also last November, in which two marines and two civilians were killed, as well as the alleged sinking last March of the navy corvette the Cheonan with a loss of 46 lives. More importantly, however, the South wants talks with the North on denuclearization as a prelude to six-party talks.

The impression was that North Korea timed the revelation of its uranium program to precede the attack on Yeonpyeong — a one-two punch in which the North showed it was building up its weapons of mass destruction and then demonstrated it prowess in hit-and-run warfare. Either way, South Korea appeared powerless to do much.

South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak, criticized for a weak response to the Yeonpyeong Island attack, got the chance two days after the Obama-Hu summit to put on a show of nerve. After much hesitation, he ordered Navy commandos on pirate patrol in the Arabian Sea to storm a South Korean freighter that pirates had held for a week.

Lee treated the rescue, in which eight pirates died, five were captured and all 21 crew members rescued, as a lesson for the North. Here was a chance to show he was willing to deploy force, as he boasted on television, against "any behavior that threatens the lives and safety of our people in the future".

Nobody is going to forget that episode whenever, wherever South Korean negotiators meet the North Koreans.

"We have a natural sequence," said an official at the Blue House. "First you have to admit what you did. Second you have to apologize, and third you have to promise not to commit such an offense again. And you do not "talk about humanitarian assistance" — at least "without mentioning anything" in return.

North Korea "clearly understands," said the official, but how much the North "understands" actually is far from clear.

The North Koreans blamed their attack on Yeonpyeong on South Korean Marine exercises in North Korean waters but deny anything to do with the sinking of the Cheonan, which a South Korean investigation concluded was blown in two by a torpedo fired by a North Korean midget submarine. No one expects the North suddenly to confess to the deed.

Instead, North Korea has called for returning to six-party talks, including Russia and Japan as well as China, the United States and the two Koreas, "without preconditions." As for its nuclear program, the North's view is that South Korea, as Washington's "lackey," is not eligible for bilateral talks on the subject.

Paik Hak-Soon, long-time analyst of North Korea at the Sejong Institute, an influential South Korean think-tank, believes Obama and Hu "confirmed the basic principles of how to lower tensions and deal with the nuclear issue." As for South Korean demands for an "apology" for "provocations" and "action" on the North's nuclear program, he said, "We have to have dialogue" regardless.

A South Korean official suggested, however, the road to North-South agreement may reach another dead end. "North Korea most fears full-scale war and defeat," he said. "Military effectiveness of South Korea is most important." Only if North Korea "apologizes first," he vowed, will we "talk about the nuclear issue."

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