North Korea’s return to the nuclear disarmament process is an essential next step before any discussions about political and economic concessions can begin, a senior U.S. official said on Wednesday.
The American’s remarks were a response to nuclear-armed North Korea’s repeated call for a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War as well as diplomatic relations with the U.S. before it agrees to return to the disarmament negotiations it walked away from the last year.
Pyongyang cites the U.S. military presence in South Korea as its main reason for building a nuclear weapons programme. North Korea is believed to have enough weaponised plutonium for at least half a dozen nuclear bombs, and last year revealed it has a uranium enrichment program that would give it a second way to make atomic weapons.
Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell told reporters in Seoul that getting the talks back on track is a top priority. The talks involve six nations: the two Koreas, the U.S., Japan, Russia and China.
“It is essential ... to make very clear to our North Korean interlocutors that the essential next step is really the six-party talks, not discussions on other matters,” he said. “It’s possible to have discussions on other matters within the six-party framework. But that six-party framework is essential going forward.”
No discussion about easing sanctions, a peace treaty or diplomatic relations can take place before the disarmament talks are back on track. North Korea must also prove it will honour previous commitments to disarm, he told South Korean reporters earlier on Wednesday, according to the Yonhap news agency.
Communist North Korea has twice tested nuclear bombs, in 2006 and last May, and test-fired long-range missile in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions barring the regime from developing its nuclear and missile programmes.
President Barack Obama’s top intelligence official said on Tuesday that North Korea relies on its nuclear weapons programme because of a crumbling military that cannot compete with South Korea.
Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, in congressional testimony on Tuesday, described a North Korean army that struggles with aging weapons; poorly trained, out-of-shape soldiers; inflexible leaders; corruption; low morale and problems with command and control.
North Korea, Mr. Blair said, has little chance of reversing a huge gap in military capabilities with South Korea and so “relies on its nuclear programme to deter external attacks on the state and to its regime.”
A military fracas off the west coast last week underlined the precarious security situation in the region.
The North Korean military fired rounds of artillery toward the two Koreas’ maritime border, prompting the South Koreans to fire warning shots. No injuries or damage were reported.
Pyongyang also has designated two new “naval firing zones” off the west coast, effective February 5-8, Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said on Wednesday. Two other no-sail zones, off the west coast, remain in place through March 29.
Despite the recent flare-up, Pyongyang agreed to hold talks on restarting joint tour programmes in North Korea that had been suspended since tensions rose in 2008, Unification Ministry spokesman Chun Hae-sung said on Wednesday.
The tours to Diamond Mountain and the ancient city of Kaesong had been seen as promising examples of reconciliation between the two Koreas.