North Korea seeks international attention with uranium claim

The North, which wants one-on-one talks with the US, said it's open to dialogue and had entered the "completion phase" of developing highly enriched uranium.

North Korea's notice to the United Nations Security Council that it's on the verge of developing nuclear warheads with highly enriched uranium appears as a grab for the attention of the US and other major powers. The North's expertise in uranium would mark a significant escalation of its potential as a nascent nuclear power.

North Korea's UN mission confirmed that the North's UN ambassador, Sin Son-ho, had sent the letter in response to sanctions imposed by the Security Council on June 12, 18 days after the North conducted its second underground test of a plutonium bomb on May 25.

"It's an expression of impatience," says Kim Tae-woo, senior fellow of the Korean Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul. "North Korea wants an immediate response from the international community."

The announcement comes as Stephen Bosworth, the US envoy to North Korea, is visiting the region for talks with North Korea's neighbors. He told reporters in Beijing that the North's claim was "of concern," but he has no plans to visit Pyongyang.

History of boasting

The secretive regime has long boasted of producing plutonium for warheads at its complex at Yongbyon, 60 miles north of the capital Pyongyang, but was believed to be only in the early phases of developing highly enriched uranium.

Pyongyang's Korean Central News Agency also raised the specter of an expanding plutonium program, saying that "reprocessing of spent fuel rods is in its final phase and extracted plutonium being weaponized."

The North's Korean Central News Agency, reporting the letter, said North Korea was ready for "dialogue and sanctions" but that the North had "no choice but to take yet stronger self-defensive countermeasures."

The need for self-defense has been the North's rationale for its nuclear program through negotiations beginning in the early 1990s.

These talks culminated in the 1994 Geneva framework agreement under which North Korea shut down its five-megawatt reactor at Yongbyon and placed the complex under the eyes of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency in return for the promise of construction of twin light water nuclear energy reactors to help meet the needs for power for the North's failing economy.

The Geneva framework fell apart in October 2002, however, after North Korea's vice foreign minister, Kang Sok Ju, acknowledged to James Kelly, then the US nuclear negotiator, that North Korea had a separate highly enriched uranium program. North Korea publicly denied the existence of the uranium program until earlier this year.

Both the United States and North Korea appear to be mingling diplomatic gestures with toughness while Mr. Bosworth visits first Beijing and then Seoul.

"What Mr. Bosworth will do is very clear," says Mr. Kim. "He will continue the two track approach" – that is, holding out the promise of more talks while the US insists North Korea must first return to talks and abide by agreements approved in 2007 to give up its entire nuclear program in return for a vast infusion of aid.\

Conciliatory gestures

North Korea, for its part, has pursued what appears to be a conciliatory tack beginning with the release of two journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who were captured while filming along the Tumen River border between China and North Korea for the Current TV network.

They were held for 140 days and sentenced to 12 years of hard labor for illegal entry into North Korea but returned to the US on a private plane with the former president, Bill Clinton.

North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-il, reported to have suffered a stroke more than a year ago, met with Mr. Clinton, in conversation and then over lunch, for more than three hours. The visit was described as "unofficial," but Clinton briefed President Barack Obama extensively on what was said.  

So far, though, North Korea has not succeeded in bringing the US into the two-sided dialogue it wants.

David Straub, a former senior diplomat with the US Embassy in Seoul, who was with Clinton on his Pyongyang venture, has written that North Korea's "conciliatory steps may very well be nothing more than yet another 'charm offensive' intended to deflect international pressure to abandon its nuclear weapons."

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