Rice praises Seoul's energy offer as 'useful'

Posted in United States | 14-Jul-05 | Author: Choe Sang-Hun| Source: International Herald Tribune

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (L), answers a reporter's question as South Korea's Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon looks on during a news conference at the Foreign Ministry in Seoul July 13, 2005.
SEOUL U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice supported South Korea's newly announced energy incentive for North Korea as "useful" on Wednesday, while Seoul demanded that the United States and Japan do more to help persuade the North to end its nuclear weapons development.

The South Korean statement was not only an expression of Seoul's wish to become a main player in a high-profile regional issue; it was also a demonstration of its frustration over the nuclear deadlock, which it believes stems from equally stubborn leaders in Washington and Pyongyang.

The energy initiative will give South Korea a bigger say in efforts to end the nuclear crisis, Unification Minister Chung Dong Young of South Korea told MBC radio here on Wednesday.

"By doing our best to resolve the issue, we can ask Japan, 'Don't you think you should play a role?"' Chung said. "We also can demand, and have the right to demand, that Russia, China and the United States all should do their best."

After a 13-month hiatus, a new round of six-party talks on ending North Korea's nuclear programs is scheduled to begin later this month in Beijing. But skepticism abounds over whether the United States and North Korea can overcome their deep mutual mistrust and find common ground.

Further delays would give North Korea an opportunity to develop a bigger nuclear arsenal and would escalate tensions with Washington.

The North has a stockpile of spent nuclear fuel that it can reprocess to harvest plutonium, a weapons ingredient. It also has said it has resumed construction on two more reactors that can yield more weapons material.

Compelled by a need for breakthrough, South Korea announced Tuesday that it would rebuild the impoverished North's power grid and provide 2,000 megawatts of electricity, which would double the North's electrical output.

The North, in turn for the energy support, must agree to dismantle its nuclear facilities.

Rebuilding of the power grid will cost South Korea more than $2 billion and the electricity supply more than $1 billion annually, officials said Wednesday.

Rice said the United States and South Korea were "very optimistic that our joint efforts to improve the security situation on the Korean Peninsula could indeed bear fruit, although of course there is still much work to be done."

Rice called the South Korean proposal a "creative idea" that might satisfy a major North Korean demand without creating a risk of nuclear proliferation. North Korea is seeking energy assistance as a reward for giving up its nuclear facilities, which it says it maintains to generate energy and to build a U.S. nuclear deterrent.

"The issue is how those energy needs will be met, particularly in the face of significant proliferation concerns about nuclear energy in North Korea," Rice said in a news conference with Ban Ki Moon, the South Korean foreign minister. "That is what is so useful about the South Korean proposal."

South Korea wants countries in the six-party talks to work harder for a deal with North Korea, which seeks economic assistance, security guarantees and diplomatic relations with the United States and Japan.

Rice indicated Wednesday that she did not have the full details of the South Korean initiative until Tuesday's announcement, which she called an "elaboration" of an envoy's report to Washington last month.

She also said she had no plans to visit Pyongyang for a meeting with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, dashing South Korean hopes that a high-ranking U.S. official would visit in an effort to build mutual trust. Since a nuclear crisis erupted in late 2002, Washington has insisted on six-party talks, involving South Korea, China, Japan and Russia, all countries that Rice said Wednesday have a stake in the "international" problem.

Washington has softened its stance recently, allowing low-level contacts with the North and agreeing to one-to-one talks on the sidelines of six-nation talks. But the six-party talks could quickly bog down if North Korea does not deny that it has an uranium-enrichment program and rejects inspections to verify its claim, or if it repeats the demand it made in March that the talks also must include U.S. arms reductions in the region, said Paik Seung Joo of the Korea Institute of Defense Analyses in Seoul.

In October 2002 U.S. officials confronted North Korea with what they called evidence it had purchased uranium enrichment equipment. North Korea has denied the charge.

There also is doubt whether the North will accept the latest South Korea proposal. But Seoul officials said - and Rice agreed - that the offer would be hard for the North to resist.

"It can be clear to anyone who looks at photographs of what North Korea looks like at night that they have energy needs," Rice said. In satellite photographs, the northern half of the Korean peninsula is almost entirely dark at night, a contrast to the bright lights of the capitalist South.