The US team handling North Korea will head this week for talks in China, Japan and South Korea in the wake of Pyongyang's boast of progress on uranium production.
It will be envoy Glyn Davies’ first trip to the region since he took up the post. He was previously the US ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Mr Davies will be accompanied by Clifford Hart, US envoy to the stalled six-nation talks on North Korea’s nuclear program. They will arrive in Seoul on Wednesday.
Starting their three-capital trip in Seoul, the envoys "will meet with senior government officials to exchange views on Korean Peninsula issues," the State Department said in a statement.
Background – North Korea’s actions
These talks come amid reports by North Korea last week that rapid progress is made on work to enrich uranium and build a light-water nuclear power reactor, projects that could give it a second way to make nuclear weapons. United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was visiting South Korea amid the announcement on uranium, called on the North "to take concrete steps that promote peace and stability and denuclearization."
Prior to North Korea’s announcement on uranium, the United States in October held rare one-on-one talks with North Korea in Geneva, hoping to maintain channels of communication despite pessimism in Washington at reaching a solution on long-running disputes with Pyongyang, but this eventually showed no signs of progress.
This is despite North Korea’s agreement in six-nation talks in 2005 to give up its nuclear program in return for aid and security guarantees. The United States has also insisted that North Korea repair ties with the South before substantive new negotiations can begin.
Response from South Korea
On the other side of the Korean Peninsula, Washington and Seoul have over the past year held low-key but highly sensitive talks on whether South Korea should be allowed to do what the Americans have long tried to stop North Korea from doing: enrich uranium and reprocess spent nuclear fuel.
The talks, set to resume Tuesday in Seoul, are aimed at revising a bilateral nuclear cooperation treaty for the first time in four decades. And the two allies’ expectations are as far apart as their perspectives on what it would mean for South Korea to adopt the technologies, which can be used to create fuel for reactors, but also to make nuclear weapons.
“The United States opposes the spread of enrichment and reprocessing even to South Korea, because it wants to set an absolute standard to prevent nuclear weapons proliferation,” said William Tobey, a senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University. “While Seoul does not pose such a threat, a hard and fast standard will be the strongest bulwark against weapons proliferation by other states.”
Besides, Mr Tobey said, “any hope of curbing the North’s nuclear weapons program must entail like restrictions on the South.”
But in South Korea, many believe they have lived with this American stricture too long. Now is the time, they say, for President Lee Myung-bak to use his vaunted friendship with President Barack Obama to get what his country’s economic future requires.
“Our alliance, billed as stronger than ever, must be solid not just in name but must produce solid fruits,” said Mr Song Min-soon, a former foreign minister who is now an opposition lawmaker.
The negotiations “will serve as an important test” of how the United States wants to be regarded by South Koreans, Mr Song said. “If they pressure South Korea too much, it might spawn anti-American sentiment” and “calls for a nuclear sovereignty,” he added.
Public opinion has sometimes favored that option — especially at times when the Americans have been seen as overbearing, or as wavering in their commitment to South Korea’s defense. In a survey conducted by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in March, with tensions still high after North Korea’s shelling of a South Korean island last year, nearly 69 percent of respondents supported developing nuclear weapons.
It remains to be seen how the talks will turn out, but one thing’s for sure - The rearrangement of the US-South Korea alliance will be closely watched by North Korea and the world.
Report: US envoys on N. Korea to head to Asia [AFP, 6 Dec 2011 ]
Analysis: The US-South Korea Alliance [Council on Foreign relations, 13 Oct 2011]