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North Korea Moves Toward Ending Weapons Program


It has been a year since North Korea alarmed the world by demonstrating its nuclear weapons capability with an underground test. In the months since, multinational diplomacy dealing with North Korea's nuclear weapons picked up urgency - and has made progress. VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Seoul.

Last October, North Korean broadcasters announced that North Korean scientists had conducted the country's first nuclear weapons test.

The test violated several North Korean pledges not to build nuclear weapons. It prompted condemnation and sanctions by the United Nations as well as South Korea, the United States and Japan.

The test even drew condemnation from China, the North's main ally and provider of fuel and raw materials. Regional political analysts say Beijing began using its economic leverage to pressure Pyongyang back to six-nation talks aimed at ending its nuclear weapons programs.

A year later, those talks have shown significant progress. South Korean Prime Minister Han Duck-soo recently spoke to lawmakers in Seoul about the process.

Mr. Han says South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun is convinced the North Korean nuclear weapons issue will be rapidly resolved.

Last week, Mr. Roh met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, and they signed an accord to cooperate on fulfilling Pyongyang's pledge to abandon its nuclear programs.

That pledge was made early this year, after four years of diplomatic effort by South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the United States. In return, those countries offered North Korea energy, aid and diplomatic incentives.

As part of the deal, Pyongyang halted operations at its main nuclear facility. A U.S. team of scientists is due in North Korea this week to discuss fully disabling the Yongbyon complex.

North Korea also promised to declare and dismantle all of its other nuclear programs. U.S. and South Korean officials say they are optimistic that can be done soon - possibly even by the end of this year.

South Korea and China sent the North 100,000 tons of fuel oil in return for shutting down Yongbyon. Pyongyang stands to receive 900,000 tons more if it meets all its other commitments.

Many experts say the turnaround in North Korea's behavior is the result of changing attitudes in both Pyongyang and Washington.

Two years ago, Washington blacklisted a Macau bank that U.S. officials say helped North Korea launder money and circulate counterfeit dollars. Virtually all the world's banks severed ties with Pyongyang as a result. Many regional experts say the resulting financial pressure pushed the impoverished North back to the six-nation talks.

Experts say Washington's cooperation in resolving the banking issue had a strong effect on North Korea's thinking. Moon Chung-In is an international relations professor at Seoul's Yonsei University who accompanied President Roh on his recent summit in Pyongyang. He says the North Korean leader is beginning to take the Bush administration seriously.

"I think Kim Jong Il has realized the authenticity of President Bush's policy on North Korea, and the North Korean nuclear issue," he said.

For years, Moon and other experts have said the Bush administration had a two-track approach to dealing with North Korea. They say even as U.S. diplomats sought to engage Pyongyang, other officials undermined diplomatic efforts, because of their view that North Korea's Stalinist government is evil.

President Bush's former assistant secretary of state, Jack Pritchard, told the Korea Society earlier this year that he supports that analysis.

Pritchard says things changed over the past year as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill began to dominate North Korea policy.

"The removal of the hard-line element around the president … gave an opportunity for Chris Hill and Secretary Rice to change," he said.

Some experts think that Hill, who represents Washington at the six-nation nuclear talks, now has a stronger hand than a year ago to engage in give-and-take with Pyongyang.

The negotiations still face considerable challenges, however. Japan has just extended for six months the sanctions it imposed on the North after last year's nuclear test. Tokyo also says it will not provide aid or normalize relations with North Korea unless Pyongyang is more forthcoming about Japanese citizens it abducted in the 1970's and '80's.

There also remains considerable skepticism about North Korea's willingness to give up any nuclear bombs it already has. Many experts think nuclear arms are too tightly woven into the North's concept of itself as a strong nation. Others think Pyongyang will hold onto its weapons both as a defense against what it sees as a hostile world, and as a potential source of income from selling the technology to other countries.

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