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(LEAD) (News Focus) Thai seizure of N. Korean arms reflects two-track U.S. strategy

All Headlines 13:46 December 14, 2009

(ATTN: MODIFIES lead; UPDATES with explanation about grand bargain in 15th para)
By Lee Chi-dong

SEOUL, Dec. 14 (Yonhap) -- The interception of a cargo plane carrying North Korean weapons by Thai authorities, reportedly in cooperation with the U.S., raises questions over its impact on the recently resumed dialogue between Pyongyang and Washington which is key to reviving the six-way nuclear talks.

While North Korea has long engaged in weapons sales as a means of obtaining foreign currency, the seizure at Bangkok's domestic Don Muang airport on Saturday morning comes on the heels of the first talks between Pyongyang and Washington since U.S. President Barack Obama took office in January.

The two sides exchanged positive views on the results of the three-day trip by Obama's special envoy to North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, hinting at additional contact and even a possible resumption of the six-party talks. They acknowledged that differences had been narrowed through the dialogue, though details of what Bosworth discussed with the North's Vice Foreign Minister Kang Sok-ju remain secret.

The arrest of the aircraft and its crew, however, shows that the secretive communist nation is engaging in dialogue with the U.S. on the one hand while continuing with its illicit arms trade on the other, in violation of U.N. resolutions banning Pyongyang from arms sales.

Resolution 1874, adopted after the North's second nuclear test in May, calls on U.N. member states to "inspect and destroy" certain categories of weapons bound to or from the nation including large-caliber artillery, missiles and related parts.

The seized cargo, weighing some 35 tons, included anti-aircraft missile launchers, rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons of war.

Officials and experts in the U.S. say that despite its pursuit of bilateral talks as part of efforts to denuclearize North Korea, the case demonstrates Washington's intention to maintain a "two-track approach" toward Pyongyang.

Long before Bosworth's visit to the North last week, U.S. officials had endeavored to assure the international community that it would break the vicious cycle of Pyongyang getting away with provocative actions by simply promising to return to the bargaining table.

South Korean officials noted a number of media reports based on Thai military officials' comments that the U.S. had informed the Thai government of the shipment under the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) designed to curb unauthorized weapons trade.

"This case, an explicit violation of the U.N. resolution, will serve as a chance to show that apart from dialogue, sanctions will continue for North Korea's bad behavior," a South Korean foreign ministry official said, requesting anonymity.

Kim Yeon-soo, professor at Korea National Defense University, also said that the Obama administration is sending a clear message that the North's return to dialogue will not automatically lead to an easing of sanctions unlike during the former Bush administration.

"The U.S. has employed a two-track strategy (on North Korea) of sanctions and negotiations. With regard to this case, accordingly, the U.S. will impose sanctions on North Korea through the U.N.," he said.

In October 2006, the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 1718 against North Korea for its first nuclear experiment.

The resolution was not fully implemented, however, as the North rejoined the six-party talks in December. The U.S. even lifted a freeze on North Korea's overseas assets worth about US$25 million to coax it back to the negotiations.

South Korean nuclear negotiators have emphasized that Seoul's Lee Myung-bak government and its American counterpart will not reward the North for "small steps," such as returning to talks, as Seoul and Washington seek the so-called "Grand Bargain" aimed at immediately addressing the core parts of the North's nuclear program through a package deal, not peacemeal steps.

With the North still silent about the Thai seizure, experts here say its impact on the burgeoning possibility of a resumption of the six-party talks depends on how Pyongyang responds to the incident.

Analysts say North Korea is unlikely to overreact as it apparently hopes to seize the opportunity for direct talks with the Obama administration.

"North Korea has gone its own way, including the export of weapons, but regardless of this the North Korea-U.S. dialogue will continue," said Cheon Seong-whun, a senior researcher at the state-run Korea Institute for National Unification.

The seizure, which again proves the international community's close partnership in its fight against the North's arms trade, may help prompt the North back to the six-way talks, he added.

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