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2009/02/19 10:59 KST
NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 42 (February 19, 2009)

   *** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 2)

U.S. to Pursue Engagement Policy on N. Korea through Diplomacy

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- Although it is not yet definitely fixed, the Barack Obama administration's North Korea policy is shaping up. One can notice through a series of remarks by President Obama and other key officials that the new U.S. administration will engage North Korea in tackling thorny issues through bilateral and multilateral talks.

   On Feb. 13, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reconfirmed that the Obama administration will continue the six-party talks to denuclearize North Korea. "We will need to work together to address the most acute challenge to stability in Northeast Asia, North Korea's nuclear program," Clinton said in a forum in New York two days before embarking on a four-nation Asian tour on Feb. 15. "The Obama administration is committed to working through the six-party talks, and I will discuss with South Korea, Japan and China how best to get the negotiations back on track."

   The North Korean nuclear issue is among the priorities of her Asian tour, her first overseas travel since taking her post in late January. South Korea, Russia, China and Japan are also members of the six-party talks on ending North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

   The on-and-off multilateral talks, which began in 2003, stalled again in December when North Korea would not agree to a verification procedure for its nuclear facilities, saying it would agree to that at a later stage.

   Barack Obama has said he will continue the talks and would not dismiss the possibility of meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il as part of bilateral engagement to resolve concerns over North Korea's nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

   "If North Korea is genuinely prepared to completely and verifiably eliminate their nuclear weapons program, the Obama administration will be willing to normalize bilateral relations, replace the peninsula's long-standing armistice agreements with a permanent peace treaty, and assist in meeting the energy and other economic needs of the North Korean people," Clinton said. She was describing the benefits North Korea can get from six-party deals struck in 2005 and 2007.

   Clinton said earlier this month that she hopes the Obama administration will be able to engage North Korea "in the weeks and months ahead" through bilateral and multilateral talks.

   She urged the North to return to the global nonproliferation regime as part of a six-party deal for denuclearization. "The North Korean government has committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and to return at an early date to the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons," she said.

   The secretary, meanwhile, warned North Korea not to destabilize regional security with repeated threats. "We believe we have an opportunity to move these discussions forward, but it is incumbent upon North Korea to avoid any provocative action and unhelpful rhetoric towards South Korea," she said.

   North Korea in recent weeks has been threatening South Korea with scrapping bilateral ties, nullification of a western sea border and a possible military conflict, which analysts see as signals directed at the fledgling Obama administration.

   Obama has already named special envoys to the Middle East and Afghanistan and Pakistan, respectively, raising speculation that North Korean issues have been sidelined by more urgent issues, such as the economic crisis and the Middle East.

   "As to the envoy, we'll be ready to announce our envoy to North Korea soon, but again, I think you'll understand that we would like to consult with our partners in the six-party talks before we do so," she said.

   Stephen Bosworth, former ambassador to South Korea and currently dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, said on Feb. 13 that he has been asked to serve as a special envoy to North Korea.

   "So much of it depends upon the choices that they make," she said, referring to the possibility of inviting the North Korean Philharmonic to New York to enhance mutual trust. "We will look at all of these individual decisions, like the philharmonic coming here, for example, and consider whether or not that does help us to try to change the atmosphere, to increase the connections between North Koreans and certainly Americans," she said.

   In Tokyo on Feb. 17, Clinton warned North Korea against going ahead with a missile launch, saying it would damage its prospects for improved relations with the U.S. and the world. Clinton said in a news conference with Japanese Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone that such North Korean move would jeopardize the Obama administration's willingness to work for better ties with Pyongyang.

   Before she arrived in Japan on Jan. 16, North Korea used its leader Kim Jong-il's 67th birthday to claim it has the right to "space development" -- a term it has used in the past -- as an apparent justification of its imminent ballistic missile launch.

   She said if Pyongyang wants to end its isolation, it also has to fulfill unmet denuclearization pledges made during the Bush administration. "The decision as to whether North Korea will cooperate in the six-party talks (and) end provocative language and actions is up to them, and we are watching closely," Clinton said at the conference. "If North Korea abides by the obligations it has already entered into and verifiably and completely eliminates its nuclear program, then there will be a reciprocal response, certainly, from the U.S."

   Concerns have lingered that the Obama administration will focus on nonproliferation rather than on the North's denuclearization due to the failure of previous U.S. administrations to quell North Korean nuclear ambitions, first discerned in the early 1990s.

   Clinton said in a news conference in Tokyo earlier in the day that she regrets that the former Bush administration scrapped the Agreed Framework signed under the administration of her husband, Bill Clinton, in 1994, aimed at freezing the North Korea's plutonium-producing reactor in return for economic benefits. "If we could turn the clock back, we would not have let that occur," she said.

   The Bush administration did not honor the framework agreement, citing North Korea's suspected uranium-based nuclear program in violation of the agreement, paving the way for the North to produce enough kilograms of plutonium to make several nuclear warheads.

   North Korea detonated its first nuclear device in 2006, prompting the alarmed Bush administration to hurriedly agree on a six-party deal for the North's nuclear dismantlement in exchange for energy and economic aid and diplomatic recognition by Washington and Tokyo. Ironically, the six-party deal failed to specifically touch on the alleged uranium program, which had triggered the scrapping of the 1994 agreement.

   At the press conference, Clinton repeated her proposal to normalize ties with Pyongyang, establish a peace treaty to replace a fragile armistice on the Korean Peninsula and provide massive economic aid -- all stipulated by the six-party process -- if the North denuclearizes itself. "But the decision as to whether North Korea will cooperate in the six-party talks (and) end provocative language and actions is up to them, and we are watching very closely," she said.

   She was talking about the threats made by North Korea in recent weeks to cut off all ties with South Korea and launch a long-range missile theoretically capable of reaching the continental U.S. "The possible missile launch that North Korea is talking about would be very unhelpful," Clinton said.

   The North launched a Taepodong-I long-range missile in 1998 and sent part of its debris into seas south of Alaska, leading then President Clinton to send Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Pyongyang in the first such visit by any U.S. top diplomat, and pledged to make a trip to the capital of the secretive communist state himself. President Clinton did not keep the pledge due to lack of time in his waning months in office, and he recently said he regrets that.

   The second long-range missile firing came in the summer of 2006, just months before the North's first nuclear test in October of that year. The second missile test was seen as a failure as it flew for less than a minute before plunging into seas between North Korea and Japan. Since then, North Korea is said to have refined its long-range missile technology.