Nuclear tensions build in North Korea

Taipei Times


Friday, Oct 24, 2003, Page 5

A top Chinese official will soon visit North Korea amid efforts to defuse tensions over Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program, the North said, as it warned yesterday that the crisis would worsen if Washington refuses to make concessions.

Wu Bangguo, chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress of China, will pay an "official goodwill visit" at the invitation of the North's parliament and Cabinet, said Pyongyang's official news agency, KCNA. It gave no further details.

In Beijing, the Foreign Ministry and Cabinet press office said they couldn't immediately confirm Wu's visit.

Wu would be the highest-ranking Chinese official to visit Pyongyang since a 2001 trip by then-Chinese President Jiang Zemin (???). Beijing is now trying to launch a new round of six-nation talks aimed at stopping North Korea's suspected nuclear weapons development.

South Korea's Unification Minister Jeong Se-hyun said yesterday: "We hope progress is made concerning the six-nation talks" during Wu's visit. Wu is expected to meet the North's leader, Kim Jong Il, Jeong said.

Jeong also said that it was rare for North Korea to make an announcement before such a visit, and that Pyongyang was hinting that it could make a "vital decision" in connection with it.

The US and others increasingly rely on Beijing's influence to bring North Korea to the discussion table. China is the impoverished communist country's only major ideological ally, and supplies it with badly needed oil and trade.

But even as it confirmed Wu's visit, Pyongyang said it was not interested in any talks unless Washington agrees to discuss signing a nonaggression treaty that would legally bar the US from launching a pre-emptive attack.

"The situation will worsen and inexorably lead to war if the US insists that we first abandon our nuclear program," said the North's state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun in a commentary carried by KCNA.

Earlier this week, US President George W. Bush rejected North Korea's nonaggression treaty demand. But he proposed a plan under which the US and North Korea's four neighbors would give the country written assurances it won't be attacked if it promises to dismantle its nuclear program.

"We see no changes in recent US moves," Rodong said yesterday. "The more the US buys time behind the curtain of dialogue, the stronger our physical deterrent force will become."

China hosted the first round of six-nation talks on North Korea's nuclear development in August. The meeting ended without an agreement on a new round, as the US and North Korea failed to narrow differences. South Korea, Japan and Russia also joined the talks.

North Korea has since added urgency to the year-long nuclear crisis by announcing that it was using plutonium extracted from 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods to build more atomic bombs. US officials believe it already has one or two bombs.

Last week, the North indicated that it might test a bomb. It test-fired at least one short-range missile this week.

During high-level talks last week in Pyongyang, South Korea expressed regret over North Korea's recent statements, and demanded an explanation.