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October 31, 2009

Senior South Korean Official Apologizes for North's Nuclear Test

South Korea's government will be changing its policy of engaging North Korea in the wake of Pyongyang's apparent nuclear test. The official responsible for implementing that policy has apologized in parliament.

Under President Roh Moo-hyun, South Korea has spent billions of dollars in aid and investment in the North, hoping to ensure the communist state remains peaceful and free of nuclear weapons.

South Korean Leaders Take Heat For North's Nuclear Test

As the world responds to North Korea's announcement of a nuclear test, Washington's envoy to Seoul is hinting at an even chillier relationship with Pyongyang. At the same time, South Korean lawmakers are turning up the heat on President Roh Moo-hyun's administration.

The U.S. ambassador to South Korea, Alexander Vershbow, implied that North Korea's apparent test of a nuclear weapon has made a direct dialogue with Washington less likely.

"We have been sending very clear signals for many, many months that we are ready to have bilateral talks with the North Koreans in the context of the six-party talks," he said.  "Where we go from here, after yesterday's events though, is a different question."

Washington has worked with five nations - South Korea, Japan, Russia, and China - to convince North Korea to fulfill its promises to be free of nuclear weapons. A few weeks ago, Washington offered a one-on-one meeting if Pyongyang simply agreed to return to six-nation disarmament talks.

The United States has condemned the North's test claims. Vershbow accused Pyongyang of "squandering" the chance of a better future by trading its arms for economic and diplomatic benefits.

The North Koreans appeared to be turning up the rhetoric in the face of international condemnation. South Korea's Yonhap News Agency quoted an unidentified North Korean official as saying he hoped the nuclear issue could be resolved before there was - in his words - "an unhappy incident of us firing a nuclear missile."

While experts estimate the North could have two or three nuclear weapons, they doubt Pyongyang has the technology to mount them on a missile.

In Seoul, the cabinet of President Roh Moo-hyun came under scrutiny, especially Unification Minister Lee Jeong-seok.

Lee is in charge of implementing President Roh's engagement policy, which has transferred billions of dollars of aid and investments to the North.

Even before Lee began testifying in South Korea's parliament, opposition lawmaker Kim Yong-gap demanded he apologize for allowing the North's test to take place. He added angrily, Lee should go drown himself in Seoul's Han River.

Lee says he tried to get North Korea to end its nuclear programs through diplomacy. He says he is sorry for failing, and for making the public feel insecure.

A spokesman quoted President Roh Tuesday as saying the engagement policy would have to change, but did not say how.

Other South Korean cabinet ministers were questioned in what lawmakers say will be three days of parliamentary inquiries into the North's nuclear test.

South Korean Defense Minister Yoon Kwang-ung says the country is able to maintain security.  He says South Korea's armed forces are capable of reacting immediately to any action North Korea takes.

The U.N. Security Council is preparing a resolution that is expected to include economic sanctions against North Korea. Pyongyang has said in the past it would view such sanctions as an act of war.

South Korea's U.N. ambassador said, in a televised interview, that whatever the U.N. resolution includes, it will have Seoul's backing. But other government officials have said South Korea will not back any military action against the North.