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S. Korea- 'getting closer' to resolving crisis with North

Sunday, January 5, 2003

SEOUL, South Korea -- South Korea honed a compromise proposal Saturday to resolve the standoff over North Korea's nuclear program, but Pyongyang warned the situation remained "serious and unpredictable."

The pace of diplomacy was picking up, with a South Korean diplomat in Russia -- an ally of the north, and talks slated in Washington early next week among the United States, the South and Japan. The South Korean proposal was expected to dominate a joint strategy session.

In advance of that regular session to review policy toward the North, the Bush Administration had not budged from its demand that the the communist regime in the North unilaterally abandon its nuclear ambitions before Washington considers a next step.

Details of the Seoul plan were scant, but media reports suggested the proposal would require concessions from both Washington and Pyongyang.

Russian assistance

South Korea's deputy foreign minister arrived in the Russian capital, saying Russian assistance was essential.

"Our government thinks that the role of the Russian government in the process of peaceful resolution of this problem is very important and constructive," Kim Hang-kyung told reporters upon arrival.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has moved to reinvigorate Moscow's strong Soviet-era ties with North Korea, hosting its reclusive leader Kim Jong Il for the second consecutive summer last year. Moscow has said it wants to link its trans-Siberian railroad with a railway being rebuilt between North and South Korea.

Seoul's diplomatic offensive underlines its new drive to mediate between the United States, its key ally, and neighboring North Korea, its erstwhile enemy. But brokering a deal won't be easy.

The United States refuses to talk until the North scraps its nuclear programs. And North Korea insists Washington must take the first step by signing a nonaggression pact promising not to attack the isolated country.

"There is no reason why the U.S. should not accept the proposal, the best way for peaceful solution," the North's state-run news agency KCNA said. "The present situation is very serious and unpredictable."

Closer to an answer

Still, officials in Seoul were upbeat about a diplomatic solution.

"We are getting closer to finding an answer," a senior government official said on condition of anonymity after Saturday's security meeting.

In past crises with the North, Seoul played a subordinate role to the United States. Now many South Koreans want their government to help chart the course of talks and assume more equal footing with Washington.

Being heard out by the United States is also seen as soothing rocky relations with South Korea amid rising public resentment over 37,000 U.S. troops based here.

The trilateral meeting -- Monday and Tuesday in Washington -- is part of the allies' regular forum for coordinating policy toward the communist North. This time, they will focus on bringing North Korea's nuclear weapons programs under international controls.

The communist North alarmed the world in October by admitting to a U.S. envoy it had a secret uranium-based nuclear weapons program, in violation of a 1994 accord.

As punishment, the United States and its allies halted oil supplies promised in the agreement. North Korea then announced it would reactivate its older plutonium-based nuclear program, saying it needs to restart a reactor to generate electricity.

The United States says the plutonium-based program, at the Yongbyon complex north of Pyongyang, could be used to build nuclear weapons. And Washington has indicated North Korea may already have two nuclear weapons and can build several more in short order.

One South Korean compromise being considered calls for the United States to resume oil shipments to North Korea, in return for it abandoning its uranium nuclear development, media reported Saturday, citing an unnamed government source.

President-elect Roh Moo-hyun intends to unveil his compromise plan in hopes the crisis can be defused before he takes office Feb. 25.

Giving the North oil removes any justification for its restarting a nuclear complex to produce electricity, the reports said. A government spokesman could not immediately comment.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher indicated Friday that Washington would not compromise. "We have no intention of sitting down and bargaining again," he said.

In Beijing, the North's ambassador to China described the situation as "getting worse and worse," but indicated Pyongyang would welcome a mediator.

Moscow and Beijing, two of North Korea's traditional allies, want a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. But so far, they have stopped short of declaring that they will aggressively pressure the North to give up its weapons programs.

Alexander Vershbow, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, welcomed the possibility of mediation by Moscow.

"We think Russia has significant influence in Pyongyang," the Interfax news agency quoted Vershbow as saying.

The North and South have remained divided since the end of the 1950-53 Korea War, which ended not in a peace treaty but an armistice.


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