- The Washington Times - Monday, December 8, 2008

SEOUL

North and South Korea have all but frozen a decadelong effort to forge economic and personal ties - the latest in a series of obstacles to U.S.-led efforts to end North Korea’s nuclear ambitions before President Bush leaves office.

With six-nation talks due to resume in Beijing on Monday, other roadblocks include North Korea’s weekend threat to snub Japan at the negotiations, plus the North’s denial of a reported deal with the U.S. to allow sampling from nuclear sites.

In October, the U.S. said the North agreed to allow international inspectors to remove samples from the nuclear site, which would allow scientists to verify its nuclear past.

The quarrels preceding Monday’s onset of three days of talks in Beijing also come amid reports of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s deteriorating health.

After meeting with top U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill and South Korean counterpart Kim Sook, Japanese representative Akitaka Saiki warned Sunday of a tough set of talks ahead.

“After hearing about what was discussed between the U.S. and North Korea, it appears a big gap still remains,” Mr. Saiki said. “Regarding how to narrow the gap, it’s up to each party’s efforts from tomorrow. I think negotiations are going to be tough.”

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency quoted Mr. Kim, the South Korean representative, as saying: “I am not optimistic at all.”

The negotiations involve the U.S., the two Koreas, Japan, China and Russia.

North Korea, which tested an atomic bomb in 2006, pledged last year to disable its nuclear reactor in exchange for 1 million tons of oil or equivalent aid from China, Russia, South Korea, Japan and the United States.

Japan refuses to ship its aid until North Korea explains its kidnapping of more than a dozen Japanese in the 1970s and ‘80s - more than half of whom died in North Korean custody.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who took office in February, has reversed a decade of accommodation with the North by conditioning economic aid on progress in denuclearization.

Mr. Lee also has supported a U.N. motion criticizing North Korean human-rights abuses.

However, in an important concession to Pyongyang, the Seoul government has intervened to stop private groups from launching helium balloons with anti-Kim Jong-il messages over the demilitarized zone between the two countries.

On Friday, civic groups in the South released a statement saying they would suspend the balloon launches at the request of Park Tee-hae, chairman of the ruling Grand National Party.

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