North Korea backpedals, demands end to sanctions
Move signals measures are taking a toll
SEOUL - Last month, North Korea got a coveted visit to Pyongyang by a top US official and hinted it was ready to resume negotiations on giving up its nuclear program.
Now, the country appears to be backpedaling, raising the bar by demanding an end to international sanctions before any talks.
The move sets up a probable new roadblock, because it’s highly unlikely the United Nations, the United States, and others would roll back sanctions. It also is the latest sign that the punitive measures appear to be taking a toll on the totalitarian regime of Kim Jong Il.
The UN Security Council slapped on tough new sanctions in June, strengthening an arms embargo and authorizing ship searches on the high seas, after North Korea carried out a long-range missile launch and its second underground nuclear test.
“What is most serious is that the export of weapons has been restricted,’’ said Yoo Ho-yeol, a professor of North Korean studies at Korea University near Seoul.
Military exports are an important source of hard currency for the North, which has long been suspected of selling weapons and missiles to some Middle East countries. The sanctions have probably scared off potential customers, Yoo said.
There have been several high-profile weapons seizures or incidents in the past six months. The most recent incident was in December, when a cargo plane that left North Korea with 35 tons of weapons was seized by Thai authorities during a refueling stop in Bangkok. Paperwork seen by arms trafficking researchers indicates the weapons may have been headed to Iran.
North Korea lobbied to have the sanctions eased when Stephen Bosworth, the special US envoy to North Korea, visited Pyongyong in December.
He responded that wouldn’t happen until North Korea returned to the nuclear negotiations and made significant progress in getting rid of its atomic weapons. He also said, however, that the North had agreed on the need to resume the talks, which was seen as a positive sign.
North Korea broke off negotiations more than a year ago. Dubbed the six-party talks, they are a joint effort of the United States, China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea to end the North’s nuclear weapons program.
In a rare diplomatic offensive this week, North Korea’s top envoys in Beijing, Moscow, and at the UN held interviews with foreign media to repeat demands outlined in a statement Monday from its Foreign Ministry.
Sin Son Ho, North Korea’s ambassador to the UN, told reporters in New York that the country could return to the talks “sooner . . . if the sanctions are removed.’’
Regarding South Korea, the North sent conflicting signals this week. On the one hand it threatened to break off dialogue and even attack the South while on the other it proposed talks to restart suspended programs in which South Korean tourists can visit the North.
Noh Jong-sun, a professor at Seoul’s Yonsei University, favors easing the sanctions to entice the North to the negotiating table.
“The North is in serious pain due to sanctions, but the stick will not resolve the issue,’’ Noh said.
He warned that putting too much pressure on North Korea could push it to strengthen ties with China.
China is North Korea’s biggest trading partner, a key aid donor, and a longtime ally dating to the 1950-53 Korean War. Its influence is seen as crucial to getting the North to return to talks, though analysts differ over how hard Beijing is willing to push.
China is believed to have temporarily suspended major investment projects in North Korea to cajole its impoverished neighbor back to the negotiating table, said Lim Eul-chul, a North Korea expert at South Korea’s Kyungnam University.