South Korea to send nuclear envoy to North Korea

The delegation will discuss buying fuel rods from a North Korean reactor, a step in the North's disarmament process.

Officials in Seoul, South Korea, announced Tuesday that a South Korean team is expected to visit North Korea on Thursday to consider buying unused fuel rods from a plutonium-producing reactor. The rare visit is part of an ongoing nuclear disarmament process. North Korea's openness to the visit is being perceived as a positive message to Washington in the run-up to President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration.

The South Korean team will be headed by a Foreign Ministry official and is expected to visit the nuclear complex at Yongbyon, 60 miles north of Pyongyang, reports CNN.

The group led by Hwang Joon-kook, the director general of the ministry's North Korean nuclear affairs bureau, will travel to North Korea via Beijing on Thursday. No date for their return was given.
The Foreign Ministry said the visit was agreed upon during bilateral talks last month in Beijing. The group was to survey and study the technical and economic feasibility of removing North Korea's fuel rods for use by South Korea.
The removal of ... North Korea's unused nuclear fuel rods from its Yongbyon nuclear facilities is part of the process agreed upon during six-party talks that also involved China, Russia, the United States and Japan.

According to The Korea Herald, an English-language South Korean daily, the South Korean team will discuss the option of buying unused fuel rods stored at Yongbyon. Seoul first offered to buy the fuel rods in 2007.

"The fact-finding team will study economic and technical feasibility of the fresh fuel rods," a ministry source said.
"If the price is too expensive, we will not [be] able to buy the fuel rods. We have to take into account that conservatives here may protest the purchase plan," the source said on condition of anonymity....
North Korea has so far completed eight of the 11 disablement steps. The remaining three include extracting spent fuel rods from the nuclear reactor, taking the unused fuel rods out of the North, and removing the driving gear of the control rod.
So far, 3,200 of the 8,000 spent fuel rods have been extracted and stored in water tanks. Used fuel rods can be used to obtain weapons-grade plutonium. The control rod can be disabled once all the used fuel rods have been removed.
North Korea reportedly has some 2,000 fresh fuel rods.

Thursday's visit marks the first official South Korean delegation to visit Pyongyang since President Lee Myung-bak took office in February 2008, reports Reuters.

Relations between North and South Korea have been frosty, with ... Pyongyang cutting almost all ties with Seoul in anger at the policies of President Lee, who ended what had once been a free flow of unconditional aid to his prickly neighbour and instead tied handouts to progress Pyongyang makes in disarmament.
The communist North and capitalist South are still technically at war, never having signed a formal peace treaty to end hostilities in 1953....
South Korea has been pushing for talks with the North after the sputtering nuclear disarmament process hit another snag late last year after Pyongyang refused to accept a proposal to allow inspectors to take nuclear samples out of the country.

According to Agence France-Presse (AFP), North Korea's willingness to host the South Korean delegation signals Pyongyang's interest in completing nuclear disarmament and can be read as a positive message to Washington.

"This is a positive signal from North Korea," Dongguk University professor Kim Yong-Hyun told AFP. "It appears to be showing willingness to go ahead with the process of disabling its nuclear programme."
He said the visit, shortly before the inauguration on January 20 of Barack Obama as US president, "is also seen as a message to Washington."

In 2007, North Korea signed on to a six-nation pact under which it would disable the plants at Yongbyon that provide fuel for its nuclear weapons. In December last year, the pact suffered a setback when negotiators could not agree on ways to verify North Korea's declaration of past nuclear activities, reported The Christian Science Monitor.

US nuclear envoy Christopher Hill this week is making what may be the final effort of his search for a lasting deal on North Korea's nuclear program in the latest round of six-party talks in Beijing.
No one, including Mr. Hill, predicts success as he attempts to get North Korea to agree in writing to what North Korean diplomats have said they will never do: permit inspectors to take material from the North's nuclear site at Yongbyon for scrutiny outside the country....
Choi Jin-wook, senior fellow at the Korean Institute of National Unification, says that North Korea wants to put off further moves until after Barack Obama's inauguration on Jan. 20.
Analysts say North Korea is hoping that Mr. Obama will send a high-level envoy to North Korea – a gesture of respect that might encourage progress.

On Monday, the JoongAng Daily, an online South Korean newspaper, reported that North Korea offered to send an official to Washington to attend Mr. Obama's presidential inauguration.

North Korea last month said it wanted to send a representative to the Jan. 20 inauguration of U.S. President-elect Barack Obama. But Washington has so far remained reluctant to accept the request, according to South Korean government sources.
"The North, through its United Nations mission office in New York, conveyed the message that it can send Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye-gwan as a representative to the inauguration ceremony," said the source. The message was first delivered to The Korea Society, an U.S. nonprofit organization that promotes Korea-U.S. relations, and was later delivered to the Obama transition staff....
The latest request from Pyongyang ... clearly indicates that the North is poised to take a more cooperative stance towards Washington, with a new liberal administration in charge.

According to the Associated Press, Washington has rejected the idea of a North Korean presence at Obama's inauguration. The offer is nonetheless "another sign the regime is eager to forge good relations with the next U.S. administration," reports AP.

However, complete North Korean nuclear disarmament may depend on improved relations between Pyongyang and Washington, reports Kyodo News.

A senior North Korean official indicated last November that the reclusive country will relinquish its nuclear arsenal only after diplomatic relations with the United States are established, a source close to U.S.-North Korea ties said Friday.
The unidentified official signaled the stance at a Nov. 7 meeting in New York sponsored by the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, a New York think tank, the source said.
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