By Kurt Achin
North Korea has announced new progress in its nuclear weapons development, drawing expressions of regret and concern from the United States and its regional partners. A senior U.S. envoy is in the region discussing a response.
South Korea vowed a “stern and consistent” response to North Korea’s declaration Friday that it is continuing to produce nuclear weapons material.
The official North Korean news agency said Pyongyang is in the final stages of a program to enrich uranium. Until this year Pyongyang had denied U.S. allegations that it enriching uranium in violation of previous agreements.
Moon Tae-young is a spokesman for South Korea’s Foreign Ministry. He says it is “regretful” that North Korea is moving “backward” in international efforts to end its nuclear weapons programs. He calls Pyongyang’s activities a denial of the international community’s will, which South Korea can not accept.
North Korea also said it is converting plutonium extracted from spent nuclear fuel into material useable in nuclear weapons.
A senior U.S. envoy on North Korea, Stephen Bosworth has been meeting with regional leaders on the North Korean nuclear issue. Before leaving Beijing en route to Seoul Friday, he said it was important for the U.S. and its partners to cooperate.
“Obviously anything that the North is doing in the area of nuclear development is of concern to us,” he said. “It for all of us reconfirms the necessity to maintain a coordinated position on the need for the complete, verifiable denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”
Bosworth says he has no immediate plans to visit North Korea. He says Washington wants dialogue, but that Pyongyang also must return to six-nation talks on ending its nuclear programs.
“Any bilateral engagement with the North Koreans must be as a part of the six-party process,” said Bosworth.
The United States, China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea have been trying for six years to convince North Korea to abandon nuclear weapons. The United Nations Security Council imposed new sanctions on the North after it conducted a second nuclear test in May.
Kim Yong-hyun is a North Korean studies professor at Seoul’s Dongkuk University. He says the U.S. should pay attention to a line in the North Korean statement that says Pyongyang is ready for both “dialogue and sanctions.”
He says that line offers a cue for the U.S. and the international community to step forward diplomatically. While the statement seems threatening, says Kim, Pyongyang’s tone need not always be so threatening going forward.
Dan Pinkston, northeast Asia analyst with the International Crisis Group, says the U.S. and its partners need to evaluate how far they want to take a punitive approach toward the North.
“Where do you set the bar for relaxation of those sanctions? How do you walk back from that? And if there is no criteria set, then North Korea has no incentive to cooperate whatsoever,” said Pinkston. “You know, if all you are going to be is sanctioned no matter what, then why cooperate at all? I mean, who would?”
Pinkston says the U.S. should come up with some kind of positive incentive to draw North Korea back to the six-nation talks.