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North and South Korean Nuclear Breakthrough?

The U.S.-Mexican border is one of the few in the world where the First World coexists uneasily alongside the Third World.

A second is the demilitarized zone dividing North and South Korea, but unlike the Rio Grande, the DMZ is nuclear. Unlike any other frontier in the world, North Korea, an economic basket case by any measure, has nuclear weapons, while prosperous South Korea operates 21 nuclear power stations which provide approximately 40 percent of the country’s electricity.

In a brief glimmer of good news, the chief nuclear negotiators of South and North Korea will meet in Beijing next week, with the meeting being viewed as a preparatory step in resuming the six-party talks aimed at ending North Korea’s nuclear programs. Most encouragingly, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has hinted that he may offer a moratorium on North Korean nuclear testing if the dialogue is successful and the six-party discussions are renewed.

According to a South Korean government official speaking on condition of anonymity, "The two Koreas recently reached an agreement to hold a second meeting in Beijing" and South Korea’s Wi So'ng-rak will meet his North Korean counterpart Ri Yong-ho (Ri Yong Ho) "in the middle of next week" to how to resume both bilateral Korean and international multilateral negotiations, the official, even as details of the meeting, including date, time, venue and agenda, are still being negotiated.

The unexpected opening comes two months after the two envoys held a first meeting in July in Bali on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum (ARF) on security, where Ri Yong-ho evinced North Korea’s interest in resuming the multi-lateral dialogue, which also involves the United States, China, Japan and Russia.

Unfortunately for the discussion, at the ARF security dialogue U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was more focused on rising maritime disputes in the South China Sea.

The bilateral Korean talks in Bali were the first between the two nations in 31 months. Following the ARF discussions North Korean officials subsequently visited Washington to discuss resuming the six-party talks, which would end North Korea’s deepening diplomatic isolation. The North abandoned the six-party negotiations in April 2009 and in an ominous portent of cause and effect, conducted its second nuclear test a month later.

Attempting to read Pyongyang’s tea leaves has replaced Kremlinology as Washington’s most arcane art. Certainly the signs coming from North Korea are mixed. In November 2010 North Korea voluntarily revealed the existence of a uranium enrichment facility, but while North Korea claims that the uranium enrichment program is solely for peaceful nuclear energy development, many analysts nevertheless believe that the new enrichment facility in fact provides North Korea with a new source of fissionable material to manufacture atomic bombs, in addition to its widely known plutonium-based nuclear weapons program.

To all except its own traumatized population and leadership, North Korea by any yardstick is a nation in crisis, even unable to feed its own citizens. North Korea shares frontiers not only with South Korea, whose joint border, the DMZ, is the most heavily militarized in the world, but China and Russia as well, none of whom want to see the country slide into chaos on their doorsteps.

But an ocean away, Washington remains skeptical of North Korea's intentions to reopen the discussions are in fact genuine and has demanded as a precondition that North Korea first stop its nuclear testing and production of nuclear material if the U.S. government is to give its support to resuming the talks. Earlier this month U.S. State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland said, "We have not seen signs, as yet, from North Korea that it's prepared to meet the conditions we've set forward." North Korea’s first vice foreign minister Kim Kye-gwan is in charge of the talks between North Korea and the United States.

The potential breakthrough comes at an unfortunate time, as nearly all the U.S. State Department’s diplomatic artillery is deployed to stymie Palestine’s bid for recognition at the upcoming United Nations General Assembly summit. Still, on 19 September U.S. special envoy for North Korea Robert King arrived in Seoul for discussions that South Korean analysts believe are to persuade the reluctant South Korean government to agree with providing food aid to North Korea. On the downside, tying U.S. diplomatic shoelaces together, King is linking his visit to the question of North Korea’s human rights record, about which he states that Washington “remains deeply concerned.”

There is a time and a place for everything, and governments ruling a starving nation have more immediate concerns than further hectoring from the banks of the Potomac on human rights. Since the beginning of the war on terror, the U.S. podium for lecturing other nations on the topic has shrunk enormously. The upcoming discussions represent an unusual opportunity potentially to blunt nuclear tensions along the most dangerous frontier in the world. Accordingly, Washington should do everything in its power to persuade South Korea to assist the North, while cashing in its negotiating chips with both Beijing and Moscow to advance the discussions. Food aid in return for a cessation of a “rogue” nuclear program is a bargain by any yardstick, and Washington should not needlessly provoke the xenophobic North Korean leadership by yammering about human rights standards that it so signally fails to live up to itself. On the Korean peninsula, the time for posturing is over and the hard bargaining should begin, if Washington can tear its gaze away from the Middle East.

And who knows? Perhaps somewhere down the road North Korea’s nuclear weaponry could be beaten, if not into ploughshares, into fuel for South Korea’s nuclear power stations in return for electricity imports.

Food AND electricity – what a concept.

By. John C.K. Daly of OilPrice.com




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