US brushes off North Korea's overtures

Many see Pyongyang's recent friendly gestures as a tactical move. The US moved Tuesday to freeze the assets of two North Korean entities, while South Korea accused the North of unleashing a deadly flash flood.

North Korea celebrated its 61st anniversary Wednesday, as diplomats in neighboring countries and in Washington puzzled over ways to bring the defiant Communist nation back to stalled talks about its nuclear program.

North Korea "is now towering high as a political, ideological, military and scientific, and technological power, an envy of the whole world," the country's Prime Minister Kim Yong-il said, according to the official news agency.

In its latest bid to assert such a status, Pyongyang last week told the United Nations that it had nearly completed the process of uranium enrichment, which would give it a second way to make nuclear weapons.

In a letter to the head of the UN Security Council, North Korea said it was "prepared for both dialogue and sanctions," but warned that if sanctions stayed in place, it would "respond with bolstering our nuclear deterrence."

The UN imposed an arms embargo and financial sanctions on Pyongyang in June, following its test of a plutonium-based nuclear device and the earlier launch of a controversial long-range missile.

Pyongyang blows hot and cold

The announcement, and its angry tone, contrasted with conciliatory moves that the North Korean authorities had made in previous weeks.

The government freed two American TV journalists whom it had detained, along with five South Korean citizens, it restarted talks with South Korea on reunification of families divided by the Korean war, and normalized traffic into an industrial park run jointly with the South.

North Korean diplomats also traveled to Santa Fe in August to visit Bill Richardson, the governor of New Mexico who has taken special interest in relations with Pyongyang, apparently to press their case for direct bilateral talks with Washington.

The US special envoy for negotiations with North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, insisted repeatedly on his tour of Beijing, Seoul, and Tokyo, which he wrapped up Tuesday, that the United States would hold bilateral talks, but only in the context of the six-party negotiations, which also include China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia.

North Korea pulled out of those negotiations in April, protesting international condemnation of its missile test. China, which leads the talks, and the US are seeking ways of restarting them.

Some observers see North Korea's recent overtures as a response to the latest sanctions; three North Korean ships suspected of carrying weapons have been boarded or otherwise deterred from reaching their destinations in recent months.

"I think they are feeling the pressure, and they want to alleviate it," says Ren Xiao, a Korea watcher at Fudan University in Shanghai.

Others are more circumspect, suggesting it is too early for the sanctions to bite. "But North Korea wants to ensure that this doesn't happen in future," says David Straub, a former US diplomat in Seoul who accompanied Bill Clinton on his mission last month to free the two American reporters.

"They see where this might be heading and they want to row back," adds Scott Snyder, director of the Center for US-Korea Policy at the Asia Foundation in Washington.

US sticks to sanctions

None of Pyongyang's recent moves, however, appear to have budged Washington or its Asian allies from their insistence that sanctions should remain in place and be properly enforced, so long as North Korea pursues a nuclear weapon.

On Tuesday, the US moved to freeze the assets of two North Korean entities believed to be supporting the regime's nuclear and missile programs.

This "chilly" response to its efforts to make nice "made them very temperamental," says Kim Tae-woo, vice president of the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul.

The result: the announcement last week of progress toward a uranium-based nuclear weapon and the sudden discharge of water from a reservoir Sunday that caused a flash flood in the South, killing six people.

If the North Koreans stick to their familiar pattern of crisis and deescalation, says Dr. Kim, Pyongyang might be expected to offer a few more conciliatory gestures in the coming weeks.

But this "appeasement offensive … has nothing to do with denuclearization," he adds. "It is just a tactic to counter international sanctions."

Most experts on North Korea, in the US, China, and South Korea, seem to have given up hope that Pyongyang will ever renounce its nuclear-weapons program. Its diplomats have been calling for direct talks with Washington that would confirm its membership in the nuclear-weapons club, and that would address denuclearization by both sides.

"I am very skeptical that they are ready to give up their nuclear weapons on any terms remotely acceptable to any US government," says Mr. Straub.

Professor Ren in Shanghai shares those doubts. "I see a very low possibility that the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] will give up its nuclear programs," he says. "If that is correct, and the outside world continues to insist on denuclearization, the impasse will remain."

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