North Korea warns US: negotiate or else

North Korea is ratcheting up pressure for its longtime goal of bilateral talks with the US.

Steve Chernin/Reuters
Ri Gun, director general of the North American affairs bureau of North Korea's Foreign Ministry, arrives at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy in New York on Friday.

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREANorth Korea issued a demand Monday for dialogue with the United States with a message that carried an implicit threat: talk or else.

Unless the US agreed to bilateral dialogue, said the comment by a spokesman for North Korea’s foreign ministry, as reported by Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency, North Korea would “go its own way.”

The message represents a clear attempt to ratchet up pressure on the US as North Korea pursues its longtime goal of negotiating with the US while isolating South Korea. North Korea has long sought dialogue with the US, never more so than in recent weeks. The question is whether the North, if talks are not held soon, will precipitate another “crisis.”

The spokesman, not identified by name, did not elaborate, but the clear implication was that North Korea would not otherwise consider a return to six-party talks on its nuclear program – and might carry out more tests of long-range missiles, as well as nuclear devices, despite strong sanctions imposed after the last nuclear test on May 25.

The North Korean spokesman embellished on the theme by harking back to the statement of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-il early last month after meetings in Pyongyang with China’s Prime Minister Wen Jiabao in which Mr. Kim said the six-party process depended on “the outcome” of talks with the US.

North Korea had been “magnanimous enough to clarify the stand that it is possible to hold multilateral talks including the six-party talks,” said the spokesman, and “now is the US turn.”

North Korea’s strongly worded remarks appeared as a follow-up to an uncertain meeting in New York on Oct. 24 between Ri Gun, the second-ranking North Korean nuclear negotiator, and Sung Kim, the US nuclear negotiator who ranks second to Stephen Bosworth, US special envoy on Korea.

Reports have been circulating for weeks that Mr. Bosworth is likely to go to Pyongyang late this month or next for talks that he has said would focus only on getting North Korea to return to six-party talks.

The State Department has confirmed no plans, however, amid strong concerns in South Korea that talks between the US and North Korea could lead to negotiations on the nuclear issue, which North Korea refuses to discuss with the South.

North Korea’s statement Monday implied that North Korea hoped for a deal with the US before returning to six-party talks, last held in Beijing in December 2008. The “direct parties,” North Korea and the US, said the foreign ministry spokesman, must “find a rational solution.”

US and South Korean officials, however, still believe North Korea will back down if only because of economic desperation. Yonhap, the South Korean news agency, quoted a “ranking” South Korean official as saying the US and South Korea were developing “contingency plans” in case of the “collapse” of the North Korean regime.

South Korea has dangled a bait in front of North Korea in the form of 10,000 tons of corn – the first offer of aid since the election of conservative Lee Myung-Bak as South Korea’s president nearly two years ago. North Korea, accustomed to receiving several hundred thousand tons of food a year from the South for nearly a decade before Mr. Lee took office, has not responded.

Lee has called for a “grand bargain” in which the North dismantles its entire nuclear program in exchange for a vast infusion of aid. The US, meanwhile, is talking about a “comprehensive agreement.” Lee and US President Barack Obama are sure to discuss these terms when Mr. Obama visits here in two weeks.


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