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North Korea walks out of talks. Is it setting the stage for more nuclear tests?

After walking out of a meeting meant as a preliminary step toward six-party nuclear talks, some worry North Korea may stage another nuclear test. Its first test came during a break in six-party talks in 2006.

By Donald KirkCorrespondent / February 9, 2011

In this photo, North Korean Army Col. Ri Sun Gyun (r.) shakes hands with his South Korean counterpart Col. Moon Sang-kyun upon his arrival for their military meeting at the south side of the truce village of Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone that separates the two Koreas, north of Seoul, South Korea, on Feb. 9.

Defense Ministry/AP

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Seoul, South Korea

South and North Korea’s first attempt at a breakthrough in reconciliation in more than four months resulted instead Wednesday in a breakdown in talks, casting serious doubts about attempts at reviving talks on North Korea's burgeoning nuclear program.

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The chief South Korean negotiator said the three-member North Korean team got up abruptly and walked out of the room without shaking hands and without comment. The meeting in the "truce village" of Panmunjom was meant to prepare for talks ahead of negotiations between defense ministers.

“Their attitude changed this afternoon,” said Colonel Moon Sang-kyun after returning to Seoul with the two other members of the South Korean team. “They changed their minds.”

After having been expected to go on talking about items for the defense ministers’ agenda, the North Koreans returned from a lengthy lunch break on their side of the North-South line at Panmunjom. They were evidently armed with instructions to reject the South Korean position and go home.

The impasse that ended more than one and a half days of talks raised the question of how or if the two sides can somehow get over this hurdle, move on to talks between defense ministers, then go to talks between high-level civilian officials. All those talks would be a prelude to returning to six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program, last held in Beijing in December 2008.

One fear here is that North Korea, by going through the motions of wanting to talk, then walking out, is setting the stage for another nuclear test in the spring.

“I believe North Korea is preparing for the next nuclear test,” says Baek Seung-joo, director of the center for security and strategy at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses reflecting the assessment of some intelligence analysts.

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Is North Korea setting the stage for nuclear tests?

North Korea staged its first nuclear test in October 2006 during a break in six-party talks while George W. Bush as president was pursuing what the North saw as a hard-line policy. South Korea’s government then was led by a liberal president, Roh Moo-hyun, dedicated to the sunshine policy of reconciliation initiated by his predecessor, Kim Dae-jung, in 1998.

Mr. Roh and Mr. Kim, both of whom died in 2009, each met North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-il, in Pyongyang for historic summits intended to settle inter-Korean enmity dating from the Korean War, but North and South Korea have been increasingly hostile since the conservative Lee Myung-bak was elected president in December 2007. North Korea conducted its second nuclear test in May 2009.

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