South Korea says it favors continuing oil deliveries to North Korea although the United States may want to stop the shipments in response to Pyongyang's admission that it has a nuclear weapons program.
The South Korean Unification Minister, Jeong Se-hyun, says supplies of fuel oil to North Korea should be continued until January. The oil would help the impoverished communist state weather the worst of the winter months.
The United States, however, has indicated it may not want to continue oil shipments, to punish North Korea for violating of a 1994 agreement.
Under the 1994 Agreed Framework, North Korea pledged to halt a nuclear weapons program in return for two civilian nuclear reactors and half a million tons of fuel oil a year. But the United States says North Korea recently admitted it was enriching uranium to create weapons.
U.S. officials say Washington will hold off on a final decision until Wednesday. On Thursday, South Korea, the United States, Japan and the European Union meet in New York to discuss the issue.
Two Asian U.S. allies, Japan and South Korea, want the fuel oil to go to North Korea. They say the Agreed Framework remains a realistic option for resolving the North Korean weapons issue and that suspending oil supplies would give Pyongyang an excuse to pursue its nuclear ambitions. But Washington wants the North to dismantle its program unconditionally.
The U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, who has been spearheading diplomatic contacts with Pyongyang, has said there is little support in Congress for continued oil shipments.
Dennis Fiorig, Professor of International studies at Seoul's Hangyang University, says each country has different interests at stake.
"There is a uniform message, which is 'the nuclear program is unacceptable,' which has to come from all three capitals," he said. " But there is an asymmetry of interests here. It is well known and it has been talked about a lot here in [South] Korea, the U.S. is primarily concerned with security issues and [South] Korea is primarily concerned with political reconciliation.
Mr. Fiorig says neighboring China, Japan and South Korea would have an enormous refugee problem if North Korea collapsed. China also has called on the United States not to withdraw from the 1994 accord.
Since the news about the North's weapons program came out last month, the United States has held a series of intense talks with South Korea and Japan on forming a unified stance in dealing with the issue. So far, the three countries do not appear to have reached an agreement.