At Southeast Asian gathering, bid to engage North Korea

ASEAN's annual regional meeting starts Friday. The North is spurning pleas for 'informal' six-party talks.

The crisis over North Korea's missile shots – and fears of an underground nuclear test – appear to be deepening even as foreign ministers of the powers with a stake in the region gather for crucial talks Friday in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur.

It's conceivable that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, arriving after bruising sessions on the Middle East, will shake hands with North Korea's foreign minister, Paek Nam Sun. But the North is spurning pleas to join in "informal" six-party talks on everything from nuclear weapons to missiles to counterfeiting.

Christopher Hill, point man for the US, told reporters the North "is very clear they don't want any multilateral talks right now."

Ms. Rice, attending the 13th Asean Regional Forum after skipping it last year, will consider trade, environmental, energy, and security issues as well.

The fact that North Korea's foreign minister is attending – his first appearance on an international stage since the tests – is a sign that North Korea's leader Kim Jong Il, "has decided to tone down," says Kim Sung Han, professor at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security in Seoul.

But the comments from Washington and Pyongyang delineate worsening differences. Undersecretary of the Treasury Stuart Levey, following up on the UN Security Council Resolution barring arms dealing with North Korea, has said he wants all members to freeze the accounts of all companies doing such business.

North Korea, writhing under the impact of the freezing of its accounts early this year, under US pressure, by the Banco Delta Asia in Macao, is feeling the pressure more intensely since the Bank of China also froze accounts as punishment for North Korea's counterfeiting not only US $100 "supernotes" but Chinese currency, too.

The North leaves no doubt about its rage over these blows to its depleted economy.

As Foreign Minister Paek was arriving for the forum, an aide ruled out any return to six-way talks "as long as the US continues to impose its financial sanctions." In Pyongyang, the North's minister of armed forces, Kim Il Chol, on the 53rd anniversary of the truce that ended the Korean War, said the North would "bolster its deterrent" in "do-or-die resistance."

The optimistic view is that the US and North Korea will adopt what Park Young Ho, research fellow at the Korea Institute of National Unification, describes as much needed "face-saving measures."

While North Korea demands bilateral talks with the US, says Mr. Park, Rice may say, "We will have as many bilateral talks as you wish under the six-party framework."

Optimism fades, though, about what any kind of talks might accomplish. "I don't think the talks will get anywhere," says Mark Fitzgerald, senior fellow for nonproliferation at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "The US is not going to back down on sanctions" and "reward North Korea for its bad behavior."

China's influence as the North's dominant trading partner and only ally appears dubious. "China is not just going through the motions," says Mr. Fitzgerald, who served previously as deputy assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation. "China has been trying to reform North Korea from the bottom up.... I don't think anyone has that much leverage over North Korea."

South Korea, still hoping to resurrect its own frayed efforts at reconciliation, has upset the US by giving less than wholehearted support to the UN resolution.

Unification Minister Lee Jong Seok, after telling a North delegation the South would not provide more rice and fertilizer until six-party talks resumed, said he believed US policy "was a failure" and decried pressure by the US and Japan. More sanctions, he said, were "not appropriate."

President Roh Moo Hyun, who has never condemned the missile tests, defended Mr. Lee. "Do you want to strangle North Korea?" he asked critics.

"I am worried about a schism between South Korea and Japan and the US," says Kim Tae Woo, senior fellow at the Korea Institute of Defense Analyses. "I would say the situation is worse or uncertain."

While North Korea "thinks about an underground nuclear test," he believes, South Korea "has to move a little more toward the American and Japanese initiatives." The situation, he says, "is too serious" for South Korea to "stay in its policy of appeasement."

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