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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 31 (November 27, 2008)

All Headlines 10:55 November 27, 2008

*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 2)

Lee, Bush, Aso Agree to Resume Six-party Talks in December

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, U.S. President George W. Bush and Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso agreed Nov. 22 to resume the six-nation talks on North Korea's nuclear program early next month to discuss the verification of the North's nuclear declaration and disabling of its nuclear facilities, the offices of Lee and Bush said.

The agreement was reached at a tripartite summit of the three leaders held on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in the Peruvian capital of Lima. "They have it worked out and China will announce (the date). There is a sense that this meeting will happen," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino was quoted as saying after the three-way summit.

Responding favorably the next day, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that the fresh nuclear talks will take place in Beijing on Dec. 8. But the Chinese government said the scheduling is still flexible amid reports that North Korea and Russia have not yet approved the Chinese proposal for the Dec. 8 meeting.

President Lee's spokesman Lee Dong-kwan also told reporters that there is a consensus among all participants that the North Korean nuclear problem should be discussed within the framework of the six-party talks that involve the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia.

North Korea agreed in 2005 to abandon its nuclear programs in exchange for economic and diplomatic incentives. Pyongyang, which tested a nuclear device in 2006, began disabling its nuclear facilities last year.

The U.S. removed the communist North from its terrorism blacklist in October. But the two sides have since been at odds over the verification of North Korea's nuclear programs, with Washington insisting on strict measures to ensure Pyongyang is not hiding any active atomic facilities.

North Korea declared on Nov. 12 that it would not allow outside inspectors to take samples from its main nuclear complex in Yongbyon. Sample-taking is believed to be a key means of nuclear verification.

It remains unclear whether the five countries have reached an agreement with North Korea on the timing of the next six-party talks. But with China expected to announce the schedule shortly, the five nations are believed to have fine-tuned a common understanding with the North, diplomatic observers say.

According to South Korea's presidential spokesman, Bush repeatedly stressed the principle of "action-for-action" in dealing with North Korea, while Aso emphasized the need for closer policy coordination among the three countries to denuclearize the North.

Following the three-way summit, Lee and Bush held bilateral talks for discussions on North Korea, the ongoing financial crisis, the long-delayed legislative approval of the South Korea-U.S. free trade agreement (FTA) and other pending issues.

On North Korea, President Lee denied that he supports a hawkish position towards the North and stressed that he will wait patiently until the communist state changes its stance, according to his spokesman.

Revealing the Dec. 8 time schedule in China, Secretary of State Rice told reporters aboard an airplane on her way back home from the APEC meeting, "We expect that…there will be a push to finalize the verification protocol."

Rice was referring to North Korea's recent rejection of the U.S. claim that Pyongyang agreed to allow access to its nuclear facilities and sampling for scientific and forensic verification of its declared nuclear programs. The rejection was seen by skeptics as an attempt to shun further negotiations with the outgoing Bush administration.

Hardliners have denounced Bush for accepting the incomplete agreement, which allows access to the North's undeclared nuclear sites by international inspectors only by "mutual consent."

The six-way talks have been stalled for months over how to verify North Korea's nuclear facilities, declared in June as part of a nuclear deal signed by the six parties in the multilateral talks.

Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill visited the North Korean capital in early October to settle on a verification regime settle in a breakthrough after a months-long stalemate. Following the successful meeting, Washington lifted the North from its terrorism blacklist and the North resumed disabling its nuclear facilities in Yongbyon, north of its capital.

"It's very important that verification protocol reflect the discussions that Chris Hill had with his North Korean counterparts when he was in Pyongyang, a set of assurances that were given," Rice said, advising patience. "The North Koreans took 30 years to get a nuclear weapons program; I think it might take more than a couple to unravel it."

Under the second phase of the multilateral nuclear deal signed by the six nations, the North is supposed to disable its nuclear facilities in return for one million tons of heavy fuel oil. The third and final phase calls for the North's dismantlement of its nuclear facilities and programs in exchange for a massive economic aid and diplomatic recognition.

Earlier this month, North Korea and the U.S. contacted in New York. Ri Gun, director general of the North American affairs bureau of North Korea's Foreign Ministry, met with Frank Jannuzi, a key foreign policy adviser to President-elect Barack Obama, in New York, saying, "We are ready to respond to any U.S. administration whatever its North Korea policy may be. We've handled many U.S. administrations, some seeking dialogue with us and others trying to isolate and oppress us."

Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department said Nov. 24 it wants the next round of six-party talks in early December to formalize the verification protocol on North Korea's nuclear facilities. "We hope and would expect that the verification protocol would be formalized in a six-party sense at the next heads of delegation meeting," spokesman Sean McCormack told a daily news briefing.

North Korea has said that inspections are limited to visits to its Yongbyon nuclear facilities, interviews of scientists and inspection of documents, rebuffing Hill's claim that the North had agreed to sampling and visits to undeclared sites.

North Korea also said any additional demands to the written agreement will be a violation of its sovereignty, dashing U.S. hopes for documenting the sampling and conditional visits to undeclared sites in further nuclear talks.

Hill, for his part, said in Lima on the sidelines of the APEC, "We also, of course, need to have a clear and, frankly, something where there will be no misunderstandings about the verification agreement," according to a transcript released by the State Department.

On North Korea's threat to cut off most border crossings with South Korea, McCormack urged the North to consider the benefits of interacting with the outside world.

"We've always encouraged direct discussions and direct interaction between the North and South," he said. "The North can only benefit from greater contact with the rest of the world, including South Korea."

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