S. Korea aims to ease standoff
Published: Saturday, January 4, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 4, 2003 at 1:50 a.m.
SEOUL, South Korea - The newly elected South Korean president plans a dramatic diplomatic opening to cool the nuclear standoff on the peninsula - placing himself as mediator between his key ally, the United States, and his erstwhile enemy, North Korea.
An aide to president-elect Roh Moon-hyun said the leader would soon put forward a settlement plan that asks concessions from both Washington and Pyongyang. He declined to elaborate, saying only that Roh is taking "a very cautious approach."
In past crises with the Stalinist regime in the North, Seoul has played a subordinate role, if any. But reaction in both Washington and Pyongyang on Friday suggested finding compromise will be difficult.
"We have no intention of sitting down and bargaining again (with North Korea)," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said in Washington.
In Beijing, the North's ambassador to China, Choe Jin Su, said his government would not accept any U.S. preconditions and described the situation as "getting worse, and worse."
The United States demands the North abandon its nuclear program before any possible negotiations. The North says it will scrap its nuclear programs only when Washington agrees to a nonaggression treaty.
The developments underscore Seoul's push to play a bigger role molding developments on the Korean Peninsula and growing domestic pressure to diminish the position of the United States, which some feel is fomenting tension with its North Korea policy.
Seoul has also stepped up diplomatic overtures to Russia and China to seek help in pressuring North Korea to compromise.
On Friday, South Korean vice foreign minister Kim Hang-kyung left for weekend talks in Moscow. The day before, South Korean officials met Chinese counterparts in Beijing. U.S., South Korean and Japanese officials will discuss the crisis in Washington early next week.
Impoverished and isolated communist North Korea alarmed the world in October by admitting to a U.S. envoy that it had a secret nuclear weapons program, in violation of a 1994 accord.
As punishment, the United States and its allies halted oil supplies promised in that agreement. North Korea then announced in early December it would reactivate the plutonium-based nuclear program.
Pyongyang since has removed monitoring seals and cameras from its main nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, expelled U.N. inspectors and signaled it may quit the global Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.
The United States contends the North may already have two nuclear weapons and restarting the program could allow it to produce several more in short order.
Roh intends to introduce his compromise plan later this month and hopes it will help resolve the dispute before he takes office Feb. 25, his transition team head Lim Chae-jung told a Korean television interviewer.
South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported that one South Korean proposal under study calls for the United States to guarantee security of North Korea "in the form of a letter or a document" in return for the communist North publicly renouncing its nuclear weapons program.
"The starting point of any solution should be North Korea publicly stating a willingness to scrap its nuclear weapons program," Yonhap quoted a South Korean Foreign Ministry official as saying.
Shim Yoon-joe, head of the Foreign Ministry's North American department, later told a television interviewer the first move was up to North Korea.
"If North Korea makes its position clear on its uranium-based nuclear weapons program and announces its willingness to scrap it, that can set the stage for dialogue with the United States," he said.
Choe, the North's ambassador to China, while rejecting pressure to reclose the nuclear program, did hold open the possibility of talks with the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, "when the time permits."
Mohamed ElBaradei, IAEA chief, on Monday will present the agency's governing board in Vienna, Austria, with a report on North Korea.
While the last two IAEA inspectors left North Korea on Tuesday, the nuclear watchdog agency will maintain an office there where it has placed its equipment in storage, the U.N. spokesman's office said.
In an effort to rally support for the U.S. position, Undersecretary of State John Bolton left Friday on a weeklong trip to Asia. He planned stops in New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand, with both North Korea and Iraq on his agenda, said a U.S. official on condition of anonymity.
After the talks in Washington next Monday and Tuesday with Japanese and South Korean officials, Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly will fly to Seoul for further discussions.
Roh, a former human rights lawyer, supports dialogue to resolve the dispute. He believes military force or economic sanctions could backfire and result in catastrophe.
The mined border between the two Koreas is the world's most heavily militarized, with heavy concentrations of troops, artillery and tanks on each side. Millions of people were killed or injured in the 1950-53 Korean War. About 37,000 U.S. troops are currently stationed in South Korea.
President Bush sharply rebuked North Korea's leader on Thursday, saying he has "no heart for somebody who starves his folks," though he said he remains confident in a peaceful solution to the nuclear standoff.
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