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US, South Korea Seek to Reconcile Response to N. Korean Missile Tests

  • Kurt Achin

Talks between the United States and South Korea on North Korea's missile launches are complicated by sharply differing opinions in Washington and Seoul as to how to influence Pyongyang's behavior. The top U.S. diplomat on the North Korean situation is in Seoul for talks with South Korean officials.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill comes to Seoul following a day of meetings with Chinese leaders in Beijing. Here, as there, the topic of discussion is North Korean weapons.

Hill, the senior U.S. envoy to multinational talks, aimed at ending the North's nuclear weapons programs, says it is time for Pyongyang to end its refusal to return to the negotiations. Before leaving Beijing Friday, he said the U.S. is ready to implement the agreement made in September, in which North Korea, or the DPRK, would give up its nuclear weapons in return for aid and security guarantees.

"The U.S. for our part, we made clear that we're prepared to sit down and implement all the elements of the September agreement. At the same time, we are also going to take measures to protect ourselves, and, I think, the DPRK needs to understand that that's simply a fact of life, and they had better get on with this process," said Hill.

Analysts, however, say getting South Korea and the U.S. on the same page will not be easy, given their distinctly different dispositions toward North Korea.

Bush administration policy is close to that of Japan, in that it tries to influence Pyongyang through firmness.

South Korea has adhered for more than six years to its so-called "sunshine policy" of engagement and reconciliation with the North. South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun has stated his disapproval of sanctions or other measures intended to pressure North Korea.

But Seoul on Friday, in response to the missile tests, did reject a proposal for military talks with the North. And a South Korean official told local reporters that large amounts of food and fertilizer aid, which the North desperately needs, had been put on hold.

Hill has long said that, if Pyongyang hopes to receive continued aid to improve its shattered economy, it has to give way on its nuclear and missile programs.

"The North Koreans have really put themselves in a position where they have a choice between further isolation and, frankly, further impoverishment, and that's a very sad fact, because as they isolate themselves, they … drop out of the means by which to improve their economic situation," he said.

On one point, U.S. and South Korean officials have been in harmony: that North Korea should return immediately to the six-nation nuclear talks. However, South Korean officials have also indicated they support Pyongyang's long-standing request for one-on-one talks with Washington.

Washington has so far rejected that request, saying the six-party framework is the only appropriate forum for dialogue with North Korea.

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