January 15, 2009 / 1:39 PM / 11 years ago

South Korea nuclear envoys go to tough-talking North

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korean nuclear envoys left on a rare visit to North Korea on Thursday aimed at advancing sputtering disarmament talks, days after the communist North issued tough terms for ending its atomic ambitions.

North Korea may try brinkmanship to increase its bargaining leverage with the team of U.S. President-elect Barack Obama after it takes office next week, President George W. Bush’s top Asia adviser said in Washington on Wednesday.

No date has been set for the return of South Korean nuclear envoy Hwang Joon-kook, leading one of the few nuclear delegations Seoul has ever sent to its neighbor, the foreign ministry said.

Hwang told reporters in Seoul on Tuesday he would discuss the purchase of 14,000 unused fuel rods from the North’s nuclear plant as part of a disarmament-for-aid deal the North struck with China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States.

The South might be able to extract material from the rods to use in its civilian nuclear program, an expert said.

The isolated North, which was hit with U.N. sanctions after its October 2006 nuclear test, cannot sell the rods overseas due to export controls and could try to dispose of them by having one of the five powers in the nuclear talks act as an intermediary.

The rods, if processed in a reactor, could produce enough plutonium for at least one or perhaps two nuclear weapons. The five powers have been in talks for months about their export.

MIXED SIGNALS

The secretive North has sent mixed signals in the past few weeks about how it will conduct its nuclear dealings.

It appeared to have extended an olive branch to Obama by saying in a New Year’s message it was willing to work with countries that were friendly.

But on Tuesday, a North Korean foreign ministry spokesman issued a harshly worded statement that said Pyongyang wanted to check that the U.S. military was not deploying nuclear weapons in the South and demanded Washington end its nuclear deterrent.

“We will never do such a thing as showing our nuclear weapons first even in 100 years unless the U.S. hostile policy and nuclear threat to the DPRK (North Korea) are fundamentally terminated,” the spokesman said, according to its official media.

He added that if the U.S. “nuclear umbrella” was removed, the North would feel no need to keep its nuclear weapons. While the United States says it has no nuclear weapons in South Korea, it is bound guarantee to Seoul’s security and it has long-range nuclear capabilities.

South Korea’s foreign ministry on Thursday criticized the North for its statement, which Seoul said ran counter to the principles of the six-way nuclear negotiations.

Kim Dae-jung, the former South Korean president who won a Nobel Peace Prize for easing tensions on the divided peninsula through his 2000 summit with Kim Jong-il, told reporters the North wanted security and economic assurances from the United States.

“Chairman Kim Jong-il aspires to improve North Korea’s relationship with the United States. I assure you this is an indisputable fact,” the former president said.

If North Korea wants to raise tension, it could try to restore its plutonium-producing nuclear facility, which it has been taking apart under the deal in return for aid and better diplomatic standing.

Nuclear experts said it could resume operation at its plant that separates plutonium from spent fuel in a few months.

North Korea’s already weak economy will be dragged down even further the longer the nuclear talks are stalled because Washington has called for a suspension of most aid to North Korea for not abiding by the disarmament deal, which experts said could lead it back to the bargaining table.

Additional reporting by Kim Junghyun and Angela Moon; Editing by Jeremy Laurence

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