- The Washington Times - Monday, December 8, 2008


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.

“Under the ruling party chairman’s request, we have decided to stop sending fliers for the time being and observe changes in North Korea’s attitude,” the groups said in a statement carried by the Yonhap news wire. “This decision has nothing to do with North Korea’s threats.”

North Korean media have called Mr. Lee “despicable human scum” and recently threatened to turn the South into “debris.”

Over the weekend, the North said it would not acknowledge Japan’s presence at the talks until it sends aid.

Last week, Pyongyang expelled all but a skeleton staff of southerners from a southern-funded tourism project at Mount Kumgang and a factory zone at Kaesong.

Since the North met bilaterally with the U.S. in October, Washington has removed the communist state from its official list of terrorist-sponsoring nations. The North responded by denying it had ever told the U.S. it would allow samples to be taken from its nuclear sites.

More troubles could lie ahead. A Defense Ministry report to Seoul’s National Assembly last week stated that it was preparing for naval skirmishes - a tactic North Korea used in 1999 and 2002 - or for North Korean attempts to seize South Korean fishing boats.

Korea University international security specialist Kim Byung-gi estimated that the Kaesong industrial park is responsible for 6 percent to 8 percent of North Korea’s total foreign currency earnings.

However, the political aspects of the projects appear more important to Pyongyang.

“It is leverage, but it is political and symbolic leverage,” said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea authority at Seoul’s Kookmin University. “The South Korean public wants stable and ostensibly good relations with North Korea, as they know that if North Korea becomes noisy, it will have an adverse impact on the South’s image and credit ratings.”

Other analysts say the Kumgang and Kaesong moves are intended to insulate North Korea during a period of uncertain leadership.

“I think they have a genuine political need to close off the country at this time from outside influences,” said Brian Myers, a North Korea specialist at Dongseo University. “We are all starting to realize that there is something very wrong with Kim Jong-il: If you assume that he is in very poor health or dying or already dead, the first step the country would have to take would be to seal the borders.”

Recent reports in South Korea, citing a brain scan supposedly secured from intelligence sources, suggest that Mr. Kim, 66, has suffered a stroke or series of strokes in recent months, which may have left his left arm paralyzed. A number of photos released by the North in recent days show Mr. Kim with his left hand gloved or tucked inside his tunic.

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