Kim-Wen Meeting Raises Hopes About Denuclearization Talks

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 8, 2009

TOKYO, Oct. 7 -- During three days of talks in Pyongyang that ended Tuesday, North Korea's leader and China's prime minister raised expectations that the North might return to nuclear disarmament talks that it abandoned in the spring.

Kim Jong Il told Wen Jiabao that North Korea is ready to rejoin the multilateral talks but that it first needs to talk one-on-one with the United States so that "hostile relations" can "be converted into peaceful ties."

North Korea rattled the world this spring with missile launches, a nuclear test and threats of war. Since August, though, its tone has changed, as symbolized by this week's tarmac hug between Kim and the Chinese premier. The North has also released detained foreigners and resumed reunions among families separated by the Korean War.

It is not clear, however, whether the United States will accept North Korea's condition for returning to disarmament talks, which Kim's government condemned in April as a forum for regime change. And there are new signals that North Korea has no intention of giving up its nuclear program.

The State Department says it needs to confer with Chinese officials who visited Pyongyang this week to gather more precise information about what North Korea is willing to do.

The Obama administration has repeatedly said it will talk with North Korea, but only if Pyongyang agrees to participate again in the six-party denuclearization talks, which began in 2003 and involve the two Koreas, the United States, China, Russia and Japan.

Those Beijing-based talks produced major results through 2007 and 2008, as North Korea -- in return for aid and diplomatic concessions -- disabled a plutonium factory and demolished a cooling tower at its main nuclear power plant.

State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said the United States encourages "any kind of dialogue that would help us lead to our ultimate goal," which is "the complete and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula."

But even as the Chinese prime minister was being feted by Kim this week, new doubts emerged about the North's interest in getting rid of its nuclear weapons.

A report by Yonhap, a South Korean news agency, said South Korean and U.S. intelligence experts have concluded that North Korea is on the brink of restoring nuclear equipment that it disabled last year.

In addition, North Korea said in a letter to the U.N. Security Council that dismantling its nuclear weapons is "unthinkable even in a dream," according to a Bloomberg News report. The Oct. 1 letter said Pyongyang would not give up its nuclear weapons unless the United States completely disarms.

North Korea announced last month that it was in the "final stage" of enriching uranium, a process that, if completed, would give it a second means of making a nuclear bomb. The country has twice tested nuclear devices that use plutonium.

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