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.'

Lee Jae-Won/Reuters
Pro-peace and anti-war activists perform during a flash mob asking for a stop to the tension on the Korean peninsula, in central Seoul on Dec. 21.
Jason Lee/Reuters
US envoy Bill Richardson speaks to the media upon his arrival at Beijing airport from North Korea, in Beijing on Dec, 21.

North Korea’s decision not to retaliate against South Korean military exercises Monday, and its declared readiness to allow inspectors to visit its nuclear facilities again, signal that the isolated and secretive nation is taking a new, less violent tack in dealing with the rest of the world.

But they offer scant hope that Pyongyang is prepared to relinquish its nuclear weapons program as the rest of the world is demanding.

That is the conclusion reached by American, Chinese, and South Korean analysts who say they expect little of substance to emerge from North Korea’s offer to let United Nations inspectors check that it is not producing enriched uranium for a bomb, and to sell nuclear fuel rods that could also be used to make a plutonium bomb.

Bill Richardson, the governor of New Mexico and unofficial US envoy to Pyongyang who extracted the pledges, said Tuesday after a four-day visit there that North Korea had taken “a step in the right direction.”

He urged “a new effort at re-engagement” with Pyongyang, which last year walked out of six-nation talks aimed at ending its nuclear weapons program in return for economic aid.

Washington was skeptical. “We’ve seen a string of broken promises by North Korea going back many, many years,” said State Department spokesman Philip Crowley. “We’ll be guided by what North Korea does, not what it says it might do under certain circumstances.”

Beijing, which has been urging a resumption of six-nation talks, was studiedly neutral. North Korea “must allow IAEA inspectors in” under the terms of a 2005 agreement that Pyongyang signed, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said. North Korea expelled inspectors for the second time last year.

Independent analysts are even more dubious. “North Korea has made a strategic decision to possess nuclear weapons,” argues Cai Jian, a Korea expert at Fudan University in Shanghai. “They just want to buy time to enhance their nuclear power and put more cards in their hand.”

Pyongyang’s offer to sell 12,000 fresh fuel rods, enough to build eight to 10 nuclear bombs, recalls a similar proposal two years ago, says Kim Tae-woo, deputy head of the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, a think tank in Seoul.

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.”

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.”

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