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Flurry of Diplomatic Activity Centers Around N. Korea - 2004-05-04


There is a flurry of diplomatic activity under way concerning North Korea. Two sets of talks are taking place between North Korean and its neighbors.

A South Korean delegation traveled to Pyongyang Tuesday for four days of economic cooperation talks. The South's Unification Ministry says its negotiators will urge North Korea to make progress on military issues, especially on the dispute over its nuclear weapons programs.

This week's discussions are the first since a massive train explosion last month in the town of Ryongchon prompted North Korea to appeal for international aid. The blast killed more than 150 people, injured some 1,500 and left thousands homeless.

Kim Tae-woo, an analyst at the Korean Institute for Defense Analysis in Seoul, says he expects the disaster will mean the North Korean negotiators have a more cooperative attitude at this week's talks. "North Koreans is [are] more willing to negotiate with the South Koreans," he says. "They are in need of help, so at the highest level there will be some promotion of economy interchanges."

Also on Tuesday, two senior Japanese diplomats began a meeting with North Korean officials in Beijing. The talks will focus on the issue of Japanese nationals kidnapped by North Korean agents.

Foreign Ministry officials in Tokyo say the talks will last at least two days.

Media reports say the team will demand that Pyongyang allow the families of five Japanese once held as North Korean captives to travel to Japan. The five kidnapped Japanese returned home in 2002 but they are pressing their government to bring their children, and the husband of one abductee, to Japan.

Japanese officials have indicated that if Pyongyang allows the relatives to leave, Tokyo will restart discussions about normalizing relations and may offer more much-needed aid to impoverished North Korea.

Officials from the United States and Japan will join counterparts from both Koreas, as well as China and Russia, for what is described as a "working group session" next week in Beijing. That group is supposed to pave the way for a third round of multilateral talks aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear weapons programs.

Before leaving for Pyongyang on Tuesday, South Korea's Unification Minister Jeong Se-hyun said he would tell his counterparts in the North that results must come out of the next round of talks on the nuclear weapons.

Also Tuesday, a South Korean newspaper reported that U.S. spy satellites have spotted new ballistic missiles and mobile launching pads at two underground bases in the North.

The Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported that the bases are 80 percent complete, which means new ballistic missiles with a range of about 4,000 kilometers could soon be deployed.

Mr. Kim at the Korean Defense Analysis Institute says the news is unlikely to disrupt this week's North-South talks. "Our government has been separating the problems of weapons of mass destruction from humanitarian help or economic exchange, so I don't think there will be any changes in South Korean attitude, official attitude, toward North Korea," he says.

But Mr. Kim adds the report could increase public resentment toward North Korea.

Missile exports have been a major source of hard currency earnings for the North.