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2009/09/17 11:08 KST
NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 72 (September 17, 2009)

*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 1)

S. Korean President Lee Sends Tough Signal on N. Korean Nuclear Program

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- South Korean President Lee Myung-bak reaffirmed his hard-line North Korea policy on Sept 15, urging the international community to take a cautious approach in dealing with the socialist state. Lee said North Korea has yet to prove it is completely willing to give up its nuclear ambitions.

   Despite the North's recent conciliatory gestures towards the South and the United States, the South Korean leader said this resulted mainly from the impoverished North beginning to feel the toll of international sanctions imposed shortly after its second atomic test in May.

   "I believe North Korea was thrown off because these measures (sanctions) are having a stronger impact than earlier anticipated," President Lee said in a joint interview with Yonhap News Agency and Japan's Kyodo News. The U.N. Security Council sanctions ban the country from engaging in the weapons trade, a major source of income, and strictly limits other cash flows into the communist nation.

   "As a result of North Korea facing such a crisis, it is taking somewhat reconciliatory gestures toward the United States and South Korea to avoid the situation. But it is still not showing any sincerity or signs that it will give up its nuclear ambitions," he said.

   Lee played down those softening moves as attempts to drag out the nuclear stalemate. Pyongyang did warn that its uranium enrichment program, an alternative route to building nuclear bombs, has entered its final stage, and that plutonium it has extracted from spent fuel rods was "being weaponized."

   Inter-Korean relations began to thaw just last month for the first time since Lee took office in February last year. Pyongyang released a South Korean worker it had detained for 137 days at a joint industrial park in the North's border town of Kaesong, following the release of two female U.S. journalists held for over 100 days after being arrested for illegal entry and unspecified "hostile acts."

   The two Koreas are now setting details for reunions of families separated across the border, the first such program in nearly two years. Pyongyang, however, continues to up the ante in terms of its nuclear program, claiming this month that it was in the final phase of completing uranium enrichment, a program it for years strongly denied having.

   Lee said the North's two-track strategy to continue its nuclear development while improving its relations with neighboring countries only amounted to an attempt to regain its access to international assistance and obtain tacit approval for its nuclear programs.

   Lee called for a united approach to bring the North back to the six-party negotiating table over its nuclear program, which also involves South Korea, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia.

   "That is why member countries of the six-party talks must redouble their efforts to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions through a unified strategy," the president said in the interview.

   The six-party talks are attended by the two Koreas, Japan, China, Russia and the United States. The talks, last held in December, have not continued since the Barack Obama administration came to power in Washington.

   In the same context, Lee emphasized closer cooperation between his country and Japan, saying Pyongyang will likely soon approach Tokyo for concessions in the nuclear disarmament talks. Within the multilateral framework, Japan has a "good chance" of resolving its abduction issue, he added.

   Tokyo has urged Pyongyang to come clean on its abduction of Japanese nationals in the late 1970s and early 80s, while the North says the issue was settled after it returned several surviving abductees.

   Japan hopes to account for its citizens allegedly kidnapped by North Korea decades ago through the six-nation negotiations. North Korea has balked at drawing such a link and in the past demanded that Tokyo be excluded from the nuclear negotiations.

   "I believe there could be a time when Japan can resolve the issue of its abducted citizens, but that is only one more reason why it and other six-party countries must reaffirm that their fundamental goal is to have North Korea give up its nuclear arms," the president said.

   President Lee's reaffirmation of his hard-line North Korea policy is expected to put further pressure on the socialist North to give up its nuclear weapons program, analysts here said.

   The tough message came as the United States was considering holding bilateral talks with the North, a goal long pursued by Pyongyang, to break a prolonged stalemate over its nuclear weapons program.

   Yang Moo-jin, a specialist with the University of North Korea Studies in Seoul, said Lee's tough message underlined cooperation between South Korea and Japan's new government in response to the warming atmosphere between Pyongyang and Washington.

   "The president underscores principles over flexibility," Yang said. "He is saying that inter-Korean cooperation will be limited before North Korea denuclearizes, and he is pointing out the abduction issue is also important to Japan. He calls for South Korea-Japan cooperation, while North Korea and the U.S. take a step ahead."

   Pyongyang has invited Stephen Bosworth, U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, for one-on-one talks. Washington said it was yet to decide whether to send him, but the conclusion is widely expected to be positive.

   Diplomatic sources in Seoul say Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao will also visit North Korea early next month ahead of the expected Pyongyang-Washington talks.

   The flurry of diplomatic efforts come as North Korea was trying to mend fences with regional powers in a dramatic shift from its earlier nuclear and missile tests.

   "North Korea appears to have a goal of buying time to fix the nuclear issue (its possession of nuclear weapons) as a fait accompli while it still receives economic assistance," President Lee said.