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Korea breakthrough: nuke freeze for aid

Beijing, Feb. 13: The nuclear standoff on the Korean peninsula ended today with North Korea agreeing to freeze its nuclear programme in exchange for energy aid and other concessions from the US and other countries.

As a first step in the historic multiple-stage deal North Korea will “shut down and seal” its main nuclear reactor at Yongbyon within 60 days and allow international nuclear inspectors back into the country, said Wu Danwei, China’s chief negotiator at the six-party talks between Japan, the US, South Korea, Russia, China and North Korea.

In exchange for this North Korea, which argued its nuclear programme was intended to generate energy, will receive 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil for free.

Pyongyang, whose persistent energy shortages are most acute during winter, will receive another 950,000 tons of oil valued at about $300 million if it completely dismantles its nuclear facilities, said Wu, who is widely believed to have tabled the initial outline of the current deal four days ago.

To goad North Korea’s insecure regime into complying with the new agreement, the US has also promised to begin negotiations to normalise diplomatic ties with Pyongyang if the agreement holds. The two countries have technically been at war ever since an armistice ended the three-year-long Korean War in 1953.

But the cautious optimism amongst diplomats in Beijing was weighed down from the start by word that Japan will only marginally participate in implementing the new deal.

That’s because Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said that though Japan supports the agreed-to framework, his country will not provide North Korea with energy until progress is made on the abduction issue that arose in 2002 when North Korea admitted kidnapping Japanese citizens to train its spies.

Also troubling experts is the continued ambiguity over North Korea’s strategic goals.

Traditionally, it was assumed that Pyongyang’s main concern is getting the US to remove its 28,000 troops from South Korea, thereby allowing North Korea’s reclusive leader Kim Jong-Il to move towards reunifying the peninsula.

But analysts such as Colin McAskill, chairman of the London-based investment advisory firm Koryo Asia Ltd., say Pyongyang is feeling hemmed in by China and Russia and wants to develop closer ties with the US .

“The US is far enough away,” while Kim Jong-Il is “worried about being scuppered by China and Russia”, McAskill told Bloomberg. Kim’s “main interest is to do a deal with the US so that he doesn’t end up like Saddam Hussein”.

Most analysts say the US has walked away from the six-party talks looking like the loser. A previous nuclear freeze-for-aid agreement had been forged between Pyongyang and Washington by the Clinton administration in 1994. But the Bush administration had walked away from the deal in 2002 after accusing North Korea of violating its terms.

Yet, the new deal the US chief negotiator Christopher Hill has signed looks remarkably like the very deal President Bush rejected, and to make matters worse Pyongyang has used the four years between 2002 and now to test a nuclear device and develop a small nuclear arsenal.

In fact, analysts and experts say they are surprised the new deal does not outline what is to become of North Korea’s existing arsenal of nuclear weapons.

Previously, US intelligence reports had said Pyongyang could have up to ten nuclear warheads and the Bush administration had made neutralising these a central part of the negotiations.

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