US, South Korea skeptical of North Korea's nuclear offer
US envoy Bill Richardson said its offer to allow nuclear inspections was a 'step in the right direction.' But the US and the South note a 'string of broken promises.'
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South Korea, which has 20 nuclear reactors of its own, offered to buy the fuel rods in talks that began early in 2009, Dr. Kim points out. “But Pyongyang asked such a fabulously high price Seoul rejected them. I don’t think they are sincere this time, either.”Skip to next paragraph
The South Korean government was also suspicious. “It appears to be a trick aimed at justifying [Pyongyang’s] illegal uranium enrichment program,” one unnamed official on President Lee Myung-bak’s staff told the official news agency Yonhap.
North Korea last month unveiled to a US scientist an advanced uranium enrichment plant that it has built at Yongbyong in violation of agreements with South Korea and with other members of the six-party talks. Scientists say it appears to be more advanced than a similar effort by Iran.
Even if International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors were allowed into the facility to ensure that it was not making material for a nuclear bomb, cautions Mark Hibbs, a nonproliferation expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “there is a strong possibility that in parallel North Korea would have undeclared facilities that it could continue to develop.”
Iran built secret enrichment facilities under the noses of the international community, Mr. Hibbs points out, and it would appear that North Korea began building its own secret uranium enrichment plant in Yongbyong while UN inspectors were still on the site, inspecting the declared plutonium program.
Pyongyang may now be ready to give up its aging plutonium program, which has included two nuclear tests but which the authorities have partially disabled in return for aid, say some observers. But that does not mean the government has given up its ambitions.
“I think they have already accumulated enough knowledge and technology so even if they just allow an inspection of Yongbyong that does not mean they have terminated the nuclear process” says Yi Ki-ho, an analyst at the Seoul branch of the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability, an international think tank.
Still, Mr. Yi added, North Korea’s diplomatic moves, coming after Pyongyang torpedoed a South Korean naval vessel last March and shelled an island last month, “is a kind of opening step.”
The shelling of Yeonbyeong island, which killed four people “was the high peak” of North Korean belligerence, Yi believes. “The next stage should be turning to negotiations.”
“North Korea’s new proposals are a signal to the international community that they don’t want war at all,” agrees Professor Cai. “They want to get back to the negotiating table.”