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2009/08/13 10:52 KST
NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 67 (August 13, 2009)

*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 2)

U.S. to Continue Sanctions on N.K. Until It Returns to Six-party Talks

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- Despite Bill Clinton's surprise 20-hour trip to Pyongyang last week, the United States is likely to continue sanctioning North Korea until it returns to six-party talks. Nevertheless, there has been widespread speculation that the two Cold War enemies will seek ways to find a breakthrough in the long-stalled negotiations over North Korea's nuclear programs.

   Speculation mounted following Clinton's visit that the trip could lead to a softening of Washington's stance vis-a-vis Pyongyang after it released two American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, detained in the country since March. North Korean leader Kim Jong-il reportedly agreed to an amnesty for the two women, who were sentenced in June to 12 years hard labor for illegal entry and "hostile acts," during a meeting with Clinton. Kim also apparently handed a message to Clinton addressed to U.S. President Barack Obama, though the details of the message were not disclosed.

   Despite the North's gesture, Washington remains adamant that the North must return to the six-party denuclearization talks, stressing that nothing has changed in its position since Clinton's visit. "Our policy remains the same with regard to North Korea," U.S. State Department spokesman Robert Wood said. "The ball is in the North's court.

   White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said that Obama spoke to Clinton upon his return on Aug. 5, adding that Obama "expressed his desire to get together fairly soon so the two men would have a chance to talk." Gibbs said Clinton spoke on the phone to a National Security Council staff member the same day about his North Korea trip. "There has been and will continue to be a formal debriefing process now on the back end of that trip." Gibbs did not elaborate on the substance of the briefing, though Obama expressed interest in learning more from Clinton on the state of Kim Jong-il's health.

   The White House maintains that Clinton's trip was purely a "private mission" to win the release of two American journalists and has denied the delivery of any such message to Obama from Kim.

   North Korea watchers, meanwhile, cautiously raised hopes of a breakthrough in the denuclearization process. Wood noted the North's expressed willingness to have a dialogue and improve ties with the U.S. and other members of the international community. Pyongyang has long expressed a desire for one-on-one dialogue with Washington to replace the six-party negotiations, though the U.S. insists that any such talks would only happen within the multilateral framework. The six parties include the U.S., South Korea, China, Russia, Japan and North Korea.

   Pyongyang's nuclear and missile tests earlier in the year prompted the U.N. Security Council to impose stiff sanctions on the country, which then announced that it was abandoning the nuclear talks in protest, citing "U.S. hostility." Experts say that inherent in the move was a strategy designed to compel the U.S. into direct talks. Reports suggest that Kim Jong-il proposed a "grand deal" to Obama through the former U.S. president, whom Kim had reportedly chosen as the only emissary capable of winning the release of the two women.

   In an Aug. 9 interview with Fox News Sunday, National Security Adviser James Jones said that despite Pyongyang's desire for bilateral negotiations, Washington would deal with North Korea through six-party talks. "The North Koreans have indicated they would like a new relationship, a better relationship with the United States," he said, basing his comments on information from Clinton's three-and-a-half-hour meeting with Kim. "They've always advocated for bilateral engagement ... We have put on the table in the context of the talks we would be happy to do that if, in fact, they would rejoin the talks."

   Clinton is expected to meet with Obama in the coming days to brief him on the substance of the conversation he had with the reclusive communist leader and offer his first-hand impression of Kim, who is said to have suffered a stroke last summer. He is also rumored to have pancreatic cancer.

   Jones stressed, however, that despite the reports the 67-year-old leader remains in control of the state. "Preliminary reports appear that Kim Jong-il is in full control of his organization, his government," he said. "He certainly appears to still be the one who is in charge."

   Recent provacations by the North were seen by international observers as an attempt to facilitate an unprecedented third generation power transition to Kim's third and youngest son, Jong-un, amid reports of the elder Kim's failing health and rumors that the 26-year-old heir's authority would be challenged by the country's military elite should his father die prematurely.

   Fueling such speculation were recent reports that North Korean authorities are promoting the line that the 26-year-old heir organized the visit to Pyongyang by Clinton so the former U.S. President could "apologize" to Kim Jong-il for the journalists' illegal border crossing.

   Analysts say the success of the power transfer depends on whether Kim Jong-il can live long enough to help consolidate his son's authority over the North's powerful military elite. Kim Jong-il himself spent two decades as the North's No. 2 man and an heir to his father Kim Il-sung, the state founder, before the latter died in 1994.

   Jones says Clinton brought no message to Kim Jong-il from U.S. President Barack Obama. "There was no official message sent via the former president and there were no promises, other than to make sure that the two young girls were reunited with their families," he said. Pyongyang said Clinton had conveyed a "verbal message" from Obama, although U.S. officials have described the trip as a "private mission" to win the release of the American journalists.

   South Korean and U.S. officials said they have been discussing a "comprehensive package" that could involve a possible departure from an earlier six-party deal that calls for action-for-action in the North's nuclear dismantlement process. Critics say North Korea has used the six-party deal as a way to buy time over the past six years for its eventual nuclear armament.

   Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the wife and former First Lady to Bill Clinton, recently repeated the principles of the six-party deal by promising that "full normalization of relations, a permanent peace regime, and significant energy and economic assistance are all possible in the context of full and verifiable denuclearization."

   While the much-awaited breakthrough in the deadlocked six-way talks also depend on the socialist nation's position, there has been no clear signal from Pyongyang yet, a senior South Korean government official said on Aug. 10. The official, who asked not to be identified, added that Bill Clinton's trip to the North last week and the release of the two American television reporters heralded a "quiet process," unlike recent months marked by the North's repeated provocations followed by U.N. punishment.

   The U.S. State Department reiterated on Aug. 10 that it will not reward North Korea for its recent provocations, repeating calls for Pyongyang to return to the six-party talks. "They are not going to be rewarded, as the secretary and president said, for their previous behavior," State Department spokesman Robert Wood said, referring to the pledge by President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton not to reward the North for coming back to the multilateral talks without first taking substantial measures towards denuclearization.

   The North conducted its first nuclear test in 2006 and another in May of this year. "I think the president and Secretary Clinton have spoken very clearly on this that the North cannot be rewarded for its past behavior," Wood said.

   The six-party deal, signed in September 2005 by the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia, calls for the North to abandon its nuclear ambitions in return for massive economic aid, diplomatic recognition by the U.S. and Japan and establishment of a permanent peace regime on the Korean Peninsula to replace the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War.

   Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently promised that "full normalization of relations, a permanent peace regime, and significant energy and economic assistance are all possible in the context of full and verifiable denuclearization."