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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 41 (February 12, 2009)

All Headlines 11:04 February 12, 2009

*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 1)

N.K., U.S. Stepping Up War of Nerves Over Korean Peninsula Issues

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- The Barack Obama administration still has yet to formulate its official North Korea policy, specifically in relation to the stability of the Korean Peninsula. The new administration has underscored the importance of the six-party framework in disarming the North, but is also seeking more direct bilateral engagement with Pyongyang.

Despite Washington's high probability of pursuing an engagement policy toward Pyongyang, the new U.S. government is determined to respond in a stern manner if North Korea takes provocative actions, hampering stability on the Korean Peninsula.

Experts said a carrot-and-stick U.S. policy will be strictly applied in dealing with the North. They agree there are multiple aims behind Pyongyang's actions, including challenging Seoul's hard-line policies and gaining leverage over Washington in future disarmament talks.

North Korea in recent weeks has been threatening South Korea with scrapping bilateral ties, nullification of their western sea border and possible military conflict, gestures that analysts see as signals directed at the fledgling Obama administration.

More recently, the socialist state is believed to be preparing to test-fire its longest-range missile, the Taepodong-2. North Kora has repeatedly threatened an armed clash near the maritime border in the Yellow Sea, where two naval clashes turned deadly in 1999 and 2002.

But the U.S. government now applies both hard-line and moderate strategy to North Korea through what is called "smart power." Last month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a Senate confirmation hearing that she would engage North Korea directly as well as through the six-party talks to address the socialist nation's alleged uranium-based nuclear program and suspected nuclear proliferation, as well as its declared plutonium-producing reactor. She also said that she would use "smart power" that "requires reaching out to both friends and adversaries, to bolster old alliances and to forge new ones."

While the North is apparently trying to get attention from the Obama administration, U.S. officials issued a string of warnings against Pyongyang's sabre-rattling campaigns such as the move to test-fire missiles.

On Feb. 10, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said his military is prepared for the possibility of a North Korean ballistic missile launch. He said in a press conference at the Pentagon that the U.S. would be able to effectively intercept a Taepodong-2 missile should one approach U.S. territory.

South Korean and U.S. intelligence officials reported recently that North Korea is preparing to test-fire an improved version the Taepodong-2 missile launched in 2006, the same year Pyongyang conducted a nuclear test. That missile failed shortly after launch, according to reports, though it was supposedly capable of reaching Alaska and the west coast of the U.S.

The first Taepodong missile was launched in 1998 and flew over Japan before diving into the sea off of Alaska. The Clinton administration sent then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Pyongyang in 2000 to discuss the North's missile and nuclear programs.

It remains uncertain how much North Korea has been able to develop its nuclear abilities. The six-nation talks on Pyongyang's disarmament again stalled in December with the North's refusal to agree a method of inspecting its nuclear facilities.

Gates urged the North to agree to the verification regime so the multilateral talks could proceed. "I'm not going to get into intelligence reports, but it would be nice if North Korea would focus on getting positive messages across to its negotiating partners about verification and moving forward with the denuclearization," he said.

Analysts suspect the North's recent move was aimed at ensuring Pyongyang remains a diplomatic priority for U.S. President Barack Obama. They add the North is also hoping to put pressure on conservative South Korean President Lee Myung-bak to alter his hard-line stance on inter-Korean relations and to drum up political support at home.

Since the 1970s, the two Koreas have signed a series of agreements on non-aggression and cooperation that the North has flouted repeatedly, rendering the pacts little more than symbolic accords.

However, the U.S. State Department is pinning hopes for a diplomatic solution to the nuclear issue to the six-party talks.

In Washington on Feb. 10, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she hopes the Barack Obama administration will be able to engage North Korea within months through bilateral and multilateral talks on the North's nuclear ambitions. Clinton made the remarks at a press session at the State Department, in the first indication of a timeline in dealing with the nuclear-armed North, after meeting with Czech Republic Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg.

Obama has not yet appointed a special envoy on North Korea, though he has nominated envoys to the Middle East and Afghanistan and Pakistan, raising concerns that he is sidelining North Korea to deal with the worst economic crisis in decades and other more urgent security tasks.

"There are opportunities for the government and people of North Korea were they to begin, once again, to engage through the six-party talks, through other bilateral and multilateral forums," Clinton said. "And we're hopeful that we'll see that in the weeks and months ahead."

Wendy Sherman, former North Korea policy coordinator under President Bill Clinton's administration, also urged North Korea to be patient. "It takes time to put together the team of the Obama administration," Sherman said in a forum in Washington sponsored by the Korea Economic Institute in Seoul.

Sherman is said to have rejected Hillary Clinton's invitation to serve as U.S. special envoy to North Korea amid speculation that no one is willing to take up a job in which producing results may be difficult, as all the carrots and sticks have already been exhausted in the past decade.

Sherman, who most recently led the Obama administration's transition team at the State Department, urged North Korea not to "behave badly to get their attention" and hoped that the new secretary of state "can have face-to-face consultations to get the process started again" on her Asian trip next week.

Clinton said in the press briefing that she hopes North Korea's recent threats will not lead to actions undermining regional security. "We are hopeful that some of the behavior that we have seen coming from North Korea in the last few weeks is, you know, not a precursor of any action that would up the ante, or threaten the stability and peace and security of the neighbors in the region," she said.

Clinton urged North Korea not to make "unacceptable" threats, reiterating her pledge to continue the six-party talks to "determine the most effective way forward." "We intend to pursue the six-party talks," she said. "Well, I am going to Asia to reassert our commitment to our allies and partners in Asia, to work on a range of issues with Japan and South Korea, China and Indonesia, as well as reach out to the rest of East Asia."

Clinton will embark Feb. 15 on a four-nation Asian tour, flying into Seoul later next week on the third leg of her trip. "We expect, with our partners in those talks, to continue a policy that would lead to the denuclearization of North Korea and the end of any proliferating activities by North Korea," she said.

President Obama has said he will continue the six-party talks and does not dismiss the possibility of meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il as part of bilateral engagement to resolve concerns over North Korea's nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

Meanwhile, in Seoul on Feb. 9, the top U.S. commander in South Korea said North Korea should first return to dialogue if it hopes to feel safe from what it claims to be the ever-present U.S. nuclear threat on the divided peninsula. The comments by Gen. Walter Sharp of the South Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command come amid a standoff in the six-nation talks.

"I think the answer to that will come out when North Korea finally agrees to sit down and discuss how we're going to go through with a verification regime," he said.

Stressing South Korea possesses no nuclear arms, the head of the U.S. Forces Korea said North Korea "successfully did a nuclear test in 2006." Sharp said a test-launch would "show that the leadership within North Korea does not understand what it needs to be a responsible nation."

Citing a 2006 U.N. resolution warning North Korea not to advance missile development, Sharp said U.S.-South Korean armed forces have prepared a long list of plans for any North Korean contingency. He added he has not detected any unusual military movements in North Korea recently.

In a related development, the U.S. imposed two-year sanctions on three North Korean firms for their involvement in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The move on Feb. 2 was the first of its kind from the Barack Obama administration. The sanctions, while largely symbolic, bar U.S. companies and government agencies from doing business with the North Korean firms. Similar penalties were also imposed on Iranian and Chinese companies.

The North Korean firms include Korea Mining and Development Corporation (KOMID), Moksong Trading Corporation and Sino-Ki. The notice did not elaborate on what kind of proliferation activities the companies were involved in, saying only that the sanctions under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act and several other acts came into effect as of Feb. 2. The U.S. regularly issues lists of foreign firms sanctioned for their involvement in WMD proliferation.

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