On North Korea, the US and South Korea are united

Following President Obama's State of the Union message, in which he insisted 'North Korea keeps its commitment to abandon nuclear weapons,' South Korea and the US are showing a united front on North Korea.

Kim Jae-hwan/AP
South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan (l.) shakes hands with US Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg before a meeting in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, Jan. 26.

US Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg had the perfect Korean saying Wednesday to convey the bond between the US and Korea when it comes to North Korea's nuclear weapons program: "We're as close as sticky rice cake."

That expression summed up the rapport Mr. Steinberg may have achieved in an intensive conversation with South Korea’s foreign minister, Kim Sung-hwan, following President Obama's State of the Union message. Mr. Obama cited the need to "stand with our ally South Korea and insist that North Korea keeps its commitment to abandon nuclear weapons."

South Korea, meanwhile, proposed talks between South and North Korean senior military officers for Feb. 11 at the truce village of Panmunjom where the Koran War armistice was signed in July 1953. Those talks are intended as a prelude to a meeting between defense ministers as requested by North Korea after Mr. Obama and China’s president, Hu Jintao, expressed “willingness to closely cooperate on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” at last week’s White House summit.

Both the Americans and the South Koreans have left little doubt that the talks between defense ministers, if held, will get nowhere unless North Korea seriously addresses the nuclear issue. Us and South Korean officials have repeatedly said North and South Korean negotiators have to meet before resuming six-party talks, last held in Beijing more than two years ago.

“We need concrete steps,” said Steinberg, conveying the results of the Obama-Hu summit to the South Koreans before flying to Japan on the same mission. “We see very much eye to eye,” he said, and China also “understands the importance of North-South dialogue toward more broad-based dialogue.”

The tone of those remarks, however, suggests to analysts here just how difficult it will be to bring North Korea to the table. The North Koreans “will say the nuclear issue is between the US and North Korea,” says Baek Seun-joo, director of the center for security and strategy at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. “The North Koreans will not yield.”

The North's enriched uranium

The impasse is particularly difficult to bridge in view of North Korea’s enriched uranium program under which the North is developing nuclear warheads with uranium at their core with a new 20-megawatt reactor nearing completion at its nuclear complex at Yongbyon. North Korea is believed to have fabricated as many as a dozen nuclear devices with an aging five-megawatt reactor at Yongbyon and has exploded two of them in underground tests in Octobr 2006 and May 2009.

“We expect another nuclear test this year,” says Kim Tae-woo, a longtime senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. “South Korea will not easily accept six-party talks.”

The South's conditions

Kim Sung-han, professor of international relations at Korea University, says the reason for Steinberg’s talks here was to “coordinate conditions” for resuming those talks.

These conditions, says Mr. Kim, include “suspension of all nuclear programs, including uranium enrichment,” and acceptance of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency at the North’s nuclear facilities. He also says North Korea “must declare they will abide by the September 19 agreement,” as signed at Beijing on that date in 2005 under which the North agreed in principle to cease all nuclear activities in return for massive aid. The signatory nations include host China, the US, Japan, Russia, and North and South Korea.

Steinberg said he and South Korea’s foreign minister “agreed it’s very important to send a strong message that the uranium enrichment program falls under the joint statement." North Korea acknowledged the existence of a uranium enrichment program last year and in November showed American nuclear physicist Siegfried Hecker its uranium reactor.

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