South Korea is to make a new attempt to defuse the escalating North Korean crisis by turning to the North's traditional friends – Russia and China – in the hope that they will persuade the renegade state to end moves to restart its nuclear plants.
As the international community pondered Pyongyang's latest defiant move – the decision to throw out UN inspectors monitoring its giant Yongbyon nuclear complex – the South Korean Foreign Ministry said it would send envoys to Beijing and Moscow to enlist help in seeking a peaceful solution.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said that its inspectors will fly out early on Tuesday, depriving it of its last means of determining whether the North Koreans are trying to make nuclear weapons, as its neighbours and the Americans fear. The IAEA's director-general, Mohamed ElBaradei, called the expulsions a "dangerous precedent", set by a "country in defiance of its international obligations".
North Korea declared on Friday that the inspectors would be expelled and that it would also restart a reprocessing laboratory – a plant which the US says can extract plutonium for nuclear bombs.
If the expulsions go ahead, it will mark a new low in Pyongyang's confrontation with Washington, which seems to have been floundering over how to react.
The Americans appear to have been wrong-footed by the speed of events, as challenges have come in rapid succession from North Korea. These began after the US cut deliveries of fuel oil last month, after discovering that the North Koreans had a secret uranium-enriching project – a blatant breach of a 1994 agreement to freeze its nuclear activities. Since then, Pyongyang has announced plans to fire up an atomic reactor and reactivate other nuclear projects; it has cut IAEA surveillance equipment; and begun moving in fuel rods.
The US has yet to find a means of easily explaining away the striking difference between President Bush's treatment of North Korea and the moves towards war with Iraq – an inconsistency which it fears may be exploited by allies opposed to its approach to Iraq. Anxious to keep the focus on Saddam Hussein, the Americans say they are not contemplating military force against North Korea, and are looking for diplomacy to save the day.
But the US insists there will be no direct negotiations until the country stops trying to make nuclear weapons and has refrozen its nuclear programme. North Korea's economic isolation limits its leverage – trade is minuscule – although there are indications that Washington is applying pressure by holding back food aid, a charge it denies.
The Washington Post reported yesterday that, if North Korea does not back down, the Bush administration intends to refer the issue to the UN Security Council in the hope of applying further pressure on the government of Kim Jong Il. But US officials are thought to be concerned that this could give leverage to countries critical of its strategy towards Baghdad.
Yesterday, the hostile words and the freezing-up of relations continued. North Korea blamed the US for suspending the opening of the first cross-border road between the two Koreas: they had planned to open it on New Year's Eve, allowing South Koreans to go to a mountain resort in the North. But military negotiators on both sides failed to agree on terms of passage through the Demilitarized Zone, the heavily fortified buffer area that separates the two countries.
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