South Korean nuclear envoys were set for a rare visit to North Korea yesterday aimed at advancing sputtering disarmament talks, days after it issued tough terms for ending its atomic ambitions.
North Korea will challenge the team of US president-elect Barack Obama after it takes office next week and may try brinkmanship to increase its bargaining leverage, US President George W. Bush’s top Asia adviser said in Washington on Wednesday.
No date has been set for the return of South Korean nuclear envoy Hwang Joon-kook, leading one of the few nuclear delegations the South has ever sent to its secretive neighbor, the foreign ministry said.
Hwang told reporters in Seoul on Tuesday he would discuss the purchase of 14,000 unused fuel rods from the North’s nuclear plant as part of a disarmament-for-aid deal the North struck with China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the US.
The South might be able to extract material from the rods to use in its civilian nuclear program, an expert said.
The North, which was hit with UN sanctions after its October 2006 nuclear test, cannot sell the rods overseas due to export controls and could try to dispose of them by having one of the five powers in the nuclear talks act as an intermediary.
The rods, if processed in a reactor, could produce enough plutonium for at least one or perhaps two nuclear weapons. The five powers have been in talks for months about their export.
The North has sent mixed signals in the past few weeks about how it will conduct its nuclear dealings.
It appeared to have extended an olive branch to Obama by saying in a New Year’s message it was willing to work with countries that were friendly.
Seoul yesterday rejected North Korea’s fresh demand for verification that all US nuclear weapons have been withdrawn from South Korea, saying there are no such weapons on its territory.
The North made the demand Tuesday in a foreign ministry statement seen as its first message to the incoming US administration of Obama.
“We will never do such a thing as showing our nuclear weapons first even in 100 years unless the US hostile policy and nuclear threat to the DPRK [North Korea] are fundamentally terminated,” the spokesman said, according to its official media.
He added that if the US “nuclear umbrella” was removed, the North would feel no need to keep its nuclear weapons. While the US says it has no nuclear weapons in South Korea, it is bound guarantee to Seoul’s security and it has long-range nuclear capabilities.
The communist state, which has committed itself to nuclear disarmament under a February 2007 six-nation pact, called for “free field access” to ensure there are no such weapons in the South.
Washington and Seoul say US atomic weapons were withdrawn from South Korea in 1991.
The South’s foreign ministry, in a statement, accused North Korea of “distorting the substance of the situation.” It called for the North’s active cooperation to denuclearise the peninsula.
In its Tuesday statement the communist state also vowed not to give up its nuclear weapons until the US drops its “hostile” policy and establishes diplomatic relations.
The Pyongyang statement reaffirmed current policy but came just days before the Obama administration takes power.
“There will be no such case in 100 years’ time that we will hand over our nuclear weapons first without the fundamental settlement of the US hostile policy toward Korea and its nuclear threat,” it said.