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Japanese, South Korean leaders skeptical of North Korea's words on disarmament

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama say Pyongyang must take 'specific actions' on its nuclear and missile programs before it can get international aid.

October 10, 2009|John M. Glionna

SEOUL — Japan and South Korea said Friday that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il must put actions ahead of words before his blacklisted nation can receive desperately needed financial and food aid.

At a news conference in Seoul with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, newly elected Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama said they agreed that North Korea must take concrete steps to dismantle its nuclear weapons program before being allowed to rejoin the world community.

Hatoyama suggested that the regime in Pyongyang, North Korea's capital, would continue to be held at arm's length "as long as it does not take specific actions" on its nuclear and missile programs.

The comments came amid skepticism by foreign policy experts that Kim would make good on his suggestion this week that North Korea could soon rejoin stalled six-party talks on nuclear disarmament.

Kim told visiting Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao that his country was willing to return to the negotiations if progress was made in direct talks with the United States.

North Korea walked away from the talks in April, then announced that it had restarted a nuclear reactor, and conducted bomb and missile tests.

Experts on North Korea, which remains under strict United Nations sanctions, described Kim's efforts to raise hopes as the latest gambit in a duplicitous foreign policy strategy.

Pyongyang has long been accused of raising international tensions with its nuclear tests and missile launches, which are followed by offers of dialogue and disarmament.

It often ends up backtracking on its promises after receiving foreign aid, analysts say.

"They're stalling tactics," Korea University professor Kim Sung-han, an expert on Pyongyang-Washington relations, said about Kim's comments to Wen. "North Korea is taking advantage of the whole game by increasing expectations on the part of the other five parties in the nuclear talks."

As always, he said, it's important to read between the lines in statements made by Pyongyang.

"Listen closely to what they are saying: that North Korea will return to the six-party talks if progress is made in U.S.-North Korea relations," Kim said. "That means that any progress will be determined by North Korea.

"They can always drag their feet if they don't get the response they want, rationalizing that a hostile policy by the United States prevents them from reentering the talks."

The offer to rejoin the talks comes as U.S. officials are ramping up pressure on Pyongyang, targeting its foreign bank accounts and blocking its arms sales overseas.

The Obama administration is wary of direct negotiations and prefers that North Korea rejoin the six-nation talks, which also include South Korea, China, Japan and Russia.

Officials are also closely watching as Pyongyang reportedly enters the final phase of restoring a key nuclear facility disabled in 2007.

Wen's visit to Pyongyang, which marked the 60th anniversary of formal ties between the two communist states, probably came after Kim gave private assurances of offering an olive branch to the nuclear disarmament process, experts say.

"[But] it is more important to figure out what message China gave to Pyongyang," said Chang Yong-seok, a research director at the Institute for Peace Affairs in Seoul.

Beijing, he said, has its own priorities, which include keeping a stable North Korea, whether it is nuclear-armed or not.

"China thinks nothing is more important than a political stabilization in North Korea," Chang said, "even nuclear issues."

Others say that leadership changes this year in Japan and the United States could spur North Korea to once again get serious about negotiations.

"Japan has a new prime minister, following the new Obama administration," said Lee Sang-sin, a senior researcher at Seoul National University's Institute for Peace and Unification Studies. "All powers are expected to help negotiations step forward in all sincerity from now on."

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john.glionna@latimes.com

Ju-min Park of The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.

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