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A brief look at the standoff with North Korea


September 13, 2006

WASHINGTON -- It has been two months since North Korea defied global warnings and launched seven ballistic missiles.

Since then, the communist country has remained quiet and unwilling to return to the six-party talks that would also include the United States, Russia, China, Japan and South Korea, aimed at ending Pyongyang's pursuit of nuclear weapons.




But recent reports from the region indicating that North Korea is ready to carry out more nuclear tests have the international community on edge. Japan has launched its third spy satellite to watch over North Korea as signs of preparation to test-fire missiles, or to set off a test nuclear explosion, continue to mount. The North Korea missile launches in July landed just short of Japan.

Even so, when President Bush meets with South Korea's leader in Washington on Thursday, the missile threat is not expected to play a central role in the talks.

Here, in Q&A format, is a look at the standoff.

Q: What has been happening recently?

A: Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill just spent five days touring China. He arrived in Seoul on Monday to discuss with South Korean officials the nuclear standoff situation on the Korean Peninsula. Hill has called on North Korea to return to the talks and implement a deal reached in September 2005, under which Pyongyang agreed to end its nuclear program in return for aid and security.

North Korea has not budged. It continues to boycott talks with the five other countries aimed at ending its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Such talks have been stalled since November, when North Korea backed out due to U.S. economic restrictions that ended the country's access to international banking over its alleged currency counterfeiting. North Korea says it will not return until Washington lifts economic sanctions. However, the five other countries plan to resume discussions soon with or without North Korea.

Hill said in Shanghai that although North Korea was not interested in incentives to stop its nuclear program, Pyongyang did take note of what Iran was being offered. But those deals - such as one offering Iran support for its bid to join the World Trade Organization in exchange for Tehran's giving up its uranium-enrichment program, for example - may not interest North Korea because it has isolated itself from the international community.

However, it is not clear whether the United States would even offer such incentives to North Korea.

Q: What can be expected?

A: When South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun meets with Bush at the White House on Thursday, North Korea will not be high on the agenda, said Don Oberdorfer, a professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University's Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.

"The two governments don't see eye to eye about North Korea, besides that they both don't want them to have nuclear weapons." The United States wants to use maximum pressure against North Korea, whereas South Korea would rather use diplomacy, he said.

"The ball is in North Korea's court," said Oberdorfer. "The next step is up to them. Whether they want to cooperate and continue the talks. Or the opposite, they may decide to test more missiles."

Reports are coming from news organizations that North Korea is indeed preparing for more missile tests. "A nuclear program is unsettling to all its neighbors," Oberdorfer said.



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