Seoul nuke stance blindsides U.S.

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The Bush administration yesterday scrambled to repair a rift with South Korea that opened when Seoul proclaimed that North Korea has a right to develop nuclear energy.

“When we saw those comments, phone calls were made,” said a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “We want to remain on the same page” with South Korea.

The source reaffirmed U.S. opposition to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, including the ostensibly peaceful development of nuclear-generated electricity.

But that position is now at odds with remarks made Thursday by Chung Dong-young, Seoul’s unification minister and National Security Council chairman.

“Our position is that North Korea has a general right to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, such as for agriculture, hospitals and electricity generating,” he told Daum Media, an on-line news site. “We have a different view to the United States.”

Mr. Chung’s comments, which appeared to catch the United States by surprise, were echoed later Thursday by South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon, who will visit Washington next week.

Mr. Ban said Pyongyang should be allowed to build nuclear-power plants if it rejoins the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and readmits inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), according to South Korea’s Yonhap news wire.

Yesterday, South Korea emphasized that it would not give its blessing to a North Korean nuclear-energy program until Pyongyang jumps many hurdles.

“Our official stance is that North Korea would be able to engage in civilian nuclear activities if and when it gives up weapons programs, returns to the NPT and observes IAEA safeguards,” Cho Tae-yong, head of the Foreign Ministry’s task force on the nuclear issue, told reporters.

“There is nothing like a rift between Seoul and Washington on this issue,” he added.

U.S. officials say that North Korea was caught, and admitted, secretly enriching uranium for the development of nuclear weapons in 2002.

After trading charges over uranium, North Korea went on to withdraw from the NPT, kick IAEA inspectors out of the country, restart a graphite-moderated reactor and reprocess nuclear fuel into plutonium.

The North then went on to claim it had manufactured several atomic bombs.

“They’d like to hold on to so-called ‘peaceful-use’ programs,” Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill told CNN yesterday. “But what has to be absolutely clear is that they get out of the nuclear business, they get rid of these various programs they have — all programs, in fact.

“And then they figure out their way how to get back into the Non-Proliferation Treaty with IAEA safeguards,” he added.

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