Kim Jong Il

SEOUL, South Korea — Surprise and skepticism met the announcement that North Korea would freeze most nuclear activities in exchange for food aid from the United States.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said U.S. officials will closely watch North Korea carry out its promises to suspend uranium enrichment at its Yongbyon nuclear complex, stop long-range missile and nuclear tests and allow International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to return.

Both sides call the steps confidence-building measures to improve relations between the U.S. and North Korea, and recognized the 1953 Korean War armistice as a “cornerstone” of peace on the Korean peninsula.

Some key questions and answers about the agreement announced late Wednesday:

Q: What is North Korea’s motivation for reaching this deal?
A: Ensuring stability. As Kim Jong Un becomes the third-generation Kim to lead the nation, North Korea’s leadership is keen to resolve potentially destabilizing issues, including the U.S. military presence in South Korea and chronic food shortages.

The Korean peninsula has been in a technical state of war since the Korean War ended in a truce in 1953, and a peace treaty with the U.S. is a key foreign policy goal for North Korea.

Food shortages in the country are chronic. Sanctions were imposed in 2006 and tightened in 2009 after two nuclear tests, and aid promised in exchange for disarmament was halted. That meant less food and resources, and harsh weather has also cut into the meager agricultural output.

The North Koreans would like to raise the issue of lifting those sanctions in future talks.

Q: What does this agreement say about Kim Jong Un’s fledgling rule?
A: This deal is the clearest sign yet that the foreign policy laid out during Kim Jong Il’s rule will be carried out under Kim Jong Un, and suggests a measure of stability and continuity in Pyongyang two months after his father’s death.

After the provocations of 2009, including the launch of a long-range missile and a nuclear test, North Korea’s foreign policy on the U.S. shifted dramatically in 2010. After Kim Jong Un was revealed during a special Workers’ Party conference in September 2010 as his father’s chosen successor, the policy toward the U.S. veered noticeably toward engagement and away from provocation.

Starting in July 2011, North Korean and U.S. diplomats met at least three times to hash out the details of a far-reaching agreement on offering food in exchange for nuclear concessions.

The Associated Press reported in December they were on the verge of signing the deal when Kim Jong Il’s death put those negotiations (of food aid for dearmament) on hold. That the North Koreans returned to the negotiations before the end of the semiofficial 100-day mourning period indicates unity.

Q: What are North Korea’s current nuclear capabilities?
A: North Korea tested nuclear devices in 2006 and 2009 and is believed to have enough weaponized plutonium for four to eight “primitive” atomic bombs, according to U.S. scientist Siegfried Hecker at Stanford University. In 2009, North Korea claimed it would begin enriching uranium, a second way to make atomic bombs, and revealed the facility to Hecker and North Korea expert Robert Carlin during a November 2010 visit.He says North Korea is not producing plutonium at the moment, but there’s little information about whether they’ve made highly enriched uranium or tried to build a bomb using it.

Q: How effective will the agreement be in curtailing North Korea’s nuclear capabilities?
A: Hecker says he has advised the U.S. government to think about three points: No more bombs, no better bombs and no exports. The suspension of uranium enrichment will limit its ability to make more bombs, while the moratorium means it won’t be able to test its devices. U.N. inspectors are to be allowed back into North Korea’s facilities to verify it is adhering to the agreement.

Q: Will North Korea ever rid itself of nuclear weapons?
A: Skepticism is widespread that North Korea will ever give up its nuclear weapons. North Korea has always cited the U.S. military presence in the region as a main reason for its drive to build atomic weapons, and having nuclear weapons to protect against the U.S. threat has always been a key source of pride for the North Koreans.

That said, North Korea insists that a nuclear-free Korean peninsula remains a goal.

Q: If this deal proceeds as expected, what will be the next step in improving relations between North Korea and the U.S. and its allies?
A: U.S. and North Korean officials must meet to discuss the technical details of distributing food aid, a tricky issue since Washington wants to be sure the food goes to malnourished children and not to the elite or the military. Next, North Korea must reach out to the International Atomic Energy Agency to allow the return of inspectors who were expelled in 2009.

The issue of tensions between the two Koreas, particularly blame for the deadly 2010 sinking of a South Korean warship, remains unresolved as does the matter of North Korea’s abduction of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s. Both have been obstacles to resuming the six-nation nuclear disarmament talks that also involve China and Russia.

Q: How and when will the U.S. food aid arrive?
A: U.S. officials and non-governmental organizations say experts will have to be on the ground in North Korea before food delivery begins. Aid groups say that could take anywhere from several weeks to months. Washington and Pyongyang have promised another meeting “soon” to finalize details about a proposed initial package of 240,000 metric tons of food aid, with the potential for more down the road.

It may not, however, arrive in time for the big celebrations in April to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of North Korea founder Kim Il Sung. Associated Press writer Foster Klug contributed to this report. Follow AP’s Korea bureau chief Jean Lee at twitter.com/newsjean and Foster Klug at twitter.com/APKlug.

Printed on Friday, March 2, 2012 as: North Korean nuclear deal raises particular question

South Korean navy sailors in a speed boat patrol around South Korea’s western Yeonpyong Island after finishing their exercise, near the disputed sea border with North Korea, South Korea, Monday, Feb. 20, 2012. South Korea on Monday conducted live-fire military drills from five islands near its disputed sea boundary with North Korea, despite Pyongyang’s threat to attack.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea conducted live-fire military drills near its disputed sea boundary with North Korea on Monday despite Pyongyang’s threat to respond with a “merciless” attack.

North Korea did not carry out the threat as it focuses on internal stability two months after the death of longtime leader Kim Jong Il and prepares for nuclear disarmament talks with the United States later this week. But with American forces scheduled to conduct additional military exercises with ally South Korea over the next few months, tensions are expected to remain high in the region.

Washington and North Korea’s neighbors are closely watching how new leader Kim Jong Un, Kim Jong Il’s son, navigates strained ties with rival South Korea, the planned U.S.-South Korean military drills and a standoff over nuclear weapons programs.

South Korea’s drills took place Monday in an area of the Yellow Sea that was the target of a North Korean artillery attack in 2010 that killed four South Koreans and raised fears of a wider conflict. North Korea didn’t threaten similar South Korean firing drills in the area in January, but called the latest exercise a “premeditated military provocation” and warned it would retaliate for what it considered an attack on its territory.

A North Korean officer told an Associated Press staffer in Pyongyang on Sunday that North Koreans would respond to any provocation with “merciless retaliatory strikes.”

North Korea is prepared for a “total war,” and the drills will lead to a “complete collapse” of ties between the Koreas, the North’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea said in a statement carried Monday by the official Korean Central News Agency.
Such rhetoric has been typical of North Korean media in the past.

Later Monday, South Korean troops on five islands near the disputed sea boundary fired artillery into waters southward, away from nearby North Korea, a South Korean Defense Ministry official said on condition of anonymity, citing department rules.

North Korea’s military maintained increased vigilance during Monday’s drills, which ended after about two hours, though Seoul saw nothing suspicious, a South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff officer said on condition of anonymity, citing department rules.

South Korean military officials said they were ready to repel any attack. Residents on the front-line islands were asked to go to underground shelters before the drills started, according to South Korean officials.

Analysts said the threats allow Pyongyang to show its anger over what it sees as a violation of its territory, but that an immediate attack was unlikely during what is a delicate time for inter-Korean and U.S.-North Korean relations, and for internal North Korean politics.

“South Korea’s military would have immediately responded this time, and that’s something that North Korea can’t afford” during its transfer of power to Kim Jong Un, said Yoo Ho-yeol, a professor at Korea University in South Korea.

The North’s threat appeared aimed at mustering internal support or could be the result of top military officers showing their loyalty to Kim Jong Un, Yoo said.

The North knows that raising tensions ahead of nuclear talks with the United States won’t be advantageous, said Cheong Seong-chang, an analyst at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea.

The Korean peninsula has been technically at war for about 60 years. The maritime line separating the countries was drawn by the U.S.-led U.N. Command without Pyongyang’s consent at the close of the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended with a truce, not a peace treaty. North Korea routinely argues that the line should run farther south.

Relations between the Koreas plummeted following the November 2010 shelling of front-line Yeonpyeong Island, seven miles (11 kilometers) from North Korean shores, and a deadly warship sinking in March of that year blamed on Pyongyang. North Korea has flatly denied its involvement in the sinking, which killed 46 South Korean sailors.

Kim Jong Un’s handling of North Korea’s military and diplomacy will come into sharper focus over the next several weeks.

The United States and North Korea will have important nuclear disarmament talks Thursday — the third round of bilateral talks since last summer and the first since Kim Jong Il’s Dec. 17 death. They are aimed at restarting six-nation aid-for-disarmament negotiations on North Korea’s nuclear program.

The North pulled out of those negotiations in early 2009 but has said it is willing to restart the six-nation talks, which also include China, Japan, Russia and South Korea. But the U.S. and its allies are demanding that the North first demonstrate its sincerity in ending its nuclear weapons program.

Additionally, a series of military exercises between the United States and South Korea will extend over more than two months. Seoul and Washington say their long-planned annual drills are defensive in nature, but North Korea calls them preparation for an invasion.

South Korea began joint anti-submarine drills Monday with the United States, but the training site is farther south from the disputed sea boundary, South Korean military officials said. About 28,500 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea as what U.S. and South Korean officials call deterrence against North Korean aggression.

South Korean and U.S. troops will start 12 days of largely computer-simulated war games next week, and two months of field training drills in early March.

Early Monday, the powerful Political Bureau of the Central Committee of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party announced it would convene a conference in mid-April to “glorify” the late leader and to rally around his son.

The conference could wrap up the North’s power succession process, analyst Cheong said, with Kim Jong Un possibly promoted to general secretary of the Workers’ Party, the ruling party’s top job and one of the country’s highest positions.

Printed on Tuesday, February 21, 2012 as: Military tensions persist over Korean peninsula

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, right, and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, left, are seen during a meeting at a military garrison near the city of Ulan-Ude in Buryatia, Russia, on Wednesday. North Korea is ready to impose a moratorium on nuclear missile tests if international talks resume.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

MOSCOW — North Korean leader Kim Jong Il says his country is ready to impose a nuclear test and production moratorium if international talks on its atomic program resume, in Pyongyang’s latest effort to restart long-stalled, aid-for-disarmament talks.

It remains to be seen, however, whether Kim’s reported gesture at a summit Wednesday with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will satisfy the most skeptical of the five other nations at talks meant to end the North’s nuclear weapons ambitions — the United States, South Korea and Japan.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Wednesday that Kim Jong Il’s reported offer to refrain from nuclear and missile tests was “a welcome first step” but not enough to restart six-party disarmament talks.

Kim, at the summit in eastern Siberia, reportedly made no mention of an issue that lies at the heart of negotiators’ worries: North Korea’s recently revealed uranium enrichment program.

Medvedev spokeswoman Natalya Timakova was quoted by the ITAR-Tass news agency as saying that Kim expressed readiness to return to the nuclear talks without preconditions, and, “in the course of the talks, North Korea will be ready to resolve the question of imposing a moratorium on tests and production of nuclear missile weapons.”

The North promised to freeze its long-range missile tests in 1999, but has since routinely tested short-range missiles and launched a long-range rocket in April 2009. It has also conducted two nuclear tests, most recently in 2009, and last year it shelled a South Korean front-line island, killing four, and allegedly torpedoed a South Korean warship, killing 46.

The North has repeatedly said it wants the so-called six-party nuclear talks to resume. Washington and Seoul, however, have been wary, calling first for an improvement in the abysmal ties between the Koreas and for a sincere sign from the North that it will abide by past commitments it has made in previous rounds of the nuclear talks.

The six-sided nuclear talks involving North Korea and the United States, China, Japan, Russia and South Korea have been stalled since December 2008. But faced with deepening sanctions and economic trouble, North Korea has pushed to restart them.

On another subject, Medvedev said Russia and North Korea moved forward on a proposal to ship natural gas to South Korea through a pipeline across North Korea.

North Korea had long been reluctant to help its powerful archenemy increase its gas supply, but recently has shown interest in the project. The South wants Russian energy but is wary of North Korean influence over its energy supply.