Thursday, April 2, 2009

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA (AP) - With North Korea’s announced plan to launch a rocket as early as this weekend, the 16-year-old nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula confronts a third U.S. president, looming large on Barack Obama’s agenda as he meets his South Korean counterpart Thursday at the G-20 summit in London.

Once again, harsh language is rumbling out of Pyongyang, with its Foreign Ministry spokesman warning that “even a single word critical of the launch” from the Security Council will be regarded as a “blatant hostile act.”

North Korea says the rocket to be launched between April 4 and 8 will carry a satellite into space but the United States, South Korea and Japan have warned that any launch _ whether of a satellite or a long-range missile _ would violate a United Nations Security Council Resolution prohibiting Pyongyang from ballistic activity, and could draw sanctions.

North Korea claims sanctions would violate the spirit of disarmament agreements and would nullify all existing measures to denuclearize the Korean peninsula.

That would in effect reverse a process that has moved in fits and starts, holding back the threat of war but never achieving much detente.

The latest developments, coupled with North Korea’s arrest and threatened indictment of two U.S. journalists, are in sharp contrast to June 2008, when North Korea made a seemingly promising move toward disarmament by blowing up a cooling reactor at its Yongbyon nuclear complex.

Kim Jong Il’s regime routinely backtracks on agreements, refuses to abide by international rules and wields its nuclear program as a weapon to win concessions from Washington or Seoul, says Koreas expert Peter M. Beck.

“History has shown them that the more provocative they are, the more attention they get. The more attention they get, the more they’re offered,” he said from Washington.

Despite years of negotiations and impoverished North Korea’s growing need for outside help, it’s clear the talks have done little to curb the regime’s drive to build _ and sell _ its atomic arsenal, experts say.

A military response to a launch seems unlikely. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak opposes it, while Defense Secretary Robert Gates says the U.S. won’t try to shoot down the rocket.

But speaking on “Fox News Sunday,” Gates said: “If this is Kim Jong Il’s welcoming present to a new president … I think it says a lot about the imperviousness of this regime in North Korea to any kind of diplomatic overtures.”

Those overtures are part of the so-called six-party process, whereby the U.S., South Korea, China, Russia and Japan negotiate jointly with North Korea. The last round of those talks, weeks before Obama moved into the White House, made little apparent progress.

Analysts speculated then that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was holding out for talks with Obama. But in forming its North Korea policy, the Obama administration has made it clear it will work through the six-party process.

A new complication is Pyongyang’s March 17 arrest of two American reporters at the North Korean border with China, which could provide the opening North Korea needs to force direct talks with Washington, analysts said.

“The timing couldn’t be better for North Korea. It strengthens the North’s bargaining position with the U.S. in dealing with the nuclear issue. They can try to link these two issues in some way,” said Daniel Pinkston, a Seoul-based analyst for the International Crisis Group think tank.

South Korea’s nuclear envoy is confident that “after certain amount of time” the talks will resume. “I am not deeply worried or concerned about resumption of the talks,” Wi Sung-lac said last week.

Where they will go may depend heavily on what comes out of the London meetings between Obama and other leaders of countries in the six-party group.

The secretive communist North has been challenging the international community with its atomic ambitions since 1993, when the regime briefly quit the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty amid suspicions it was secretly developing atomic weapons.

In 1994, North Korea and the U.S. worked out an agreement that promised Pyongyang oil and two power-generating light water nuclear reactors that cannot easily be used to make bombs if the country would give up its nuclear ambitions.

Four years later, North Korea fired a multistage Taepodong-1 missile over Japan and into the Pacific Ocean. The North pledged in 1999 to freeze long-range missile tests, but later threatened to restart its nuclear program and resume testing missiles amid delays in help building the reactors.

In 2002, Washington said Pyongyang admitted to a secret nuclear weapons program in violation of the 1994 agreement, prompting the U.S., Japan and South Korea to halt the promised oil supplies and suspension of the light water reactor project.

The following year the North again withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and announced it had reactivated its nuclear power facilities.

That August, the six-party talks got under way and 13 months later produced a landmark accord calling for North Korea to abandon its nuclear program in exchange for economic aid, diplomatic recognition and a security guarantee from Washington.

But as the talks dragged on, North Korea in July 2006 test-fired six missiles, one of which U.S. and South Korean officials believe has the potential to strike Alaska. The launch angered even North Korea’s longtime ally and main donor, China, which in an unusual move agreed to a U.N. condemnation.

In October 2006 came an underground nuclear test followed by a U.N. resolution banning any ballistic activity by North Korea. The U.S., South Korea and Japan say that includes sending up satellites since the technology for launching a satellite and a missile are virtually the same.

In February 2007, Pyongyang agreed to concrete steps toward disarmament: disabling its main nuclear facilities in exchange for the equivalent of 1 million tons of energy aid and other concessions. Disablement began that November.

But North Korea halted the process amid a dispute with Washington over how to verify its 18,000-page account of past atomic activities and the talks remained stalled.

Ultimately, the talks may never achieve their aim of disarming North Korea, said Beck.

“It may very well be that in the end, the North will try to play it both ways: continue to negotiate for goodies while never giving up its nuclear trump card,” he said. “After all, that is essentially what it has done for the past 16 years.”


Associated Press writer Kwang-tae Kim contributed to this report.

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