Flurry of activity as Seoul gears up for summit

Officials aim for high-level talks with N. Korea; Jane's report suggests North testing reactor

SEOUL • South Korea will seek high-level talks with North Korea this month as preparations for a summit began yesterday, the presidential chief of staff said, while officials in the South expressed interest in a separate summit with the United States.

This came as a report yesterday by intelligence analysts at Jane's by IHS Markit said satellite imagery from Feb 25 showed gas emissions from a stack at the North's experimental light water reactor, suggesting preliminary testing of the nuclear reactor had likely begun.

The reactor could be used to produce weapons-grade plutonium, but North Korea is believed to already have enough fissile material for multiple nuclear bombs, according to Mr Joshua Pollack, a senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, in California.

An official at the South's defence ministry said the authorities were aware of the Jane's report, which follows a similar one released on the 38 North website earlier this month that said a nearby reactor had also continued to show signs of operation.

If North Korea agrees to the high-level talks, they would be the first North-South contact since a South Korean delegation returned from a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un this month.

Discussions about the talks come after the head of the US Pacific Command said the US could not be overly optimistic about the outcome of any summit between US President Donald Trump and Mr Kim, aimed at ending the North's nuclear and missile programmes, and must go into it with "eyes wide open".

Admiral Harry Harris told the US Senate Armed Services Committee he believed the US would stick to its demand for the "complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearisation" of the Korean peninsula. However, in the light of the diplomatic thaw with Pyongyang, South Korea and the US will scale down and shorten annual joint military exercises.

Citing a military source, the South's Yonhap news agency said Foal Eagle, a field exercise involving tens of thousands of troops, will start in early April, but be halved in duration from two months to one.

Officials of the two Koreas will discuss key agenda topics and other matters related to the pending summit between South Korean President Moon Jae In and Mr Kim, Mr Moon's presidential chief of staff Im Jong Seok told a media briefing yesterday.

"We've decided to narrow down the agenda topics to denuclearising the Korean peninsula, securing permanent peace to ease military tension and new, bold ways to take inter-Korean relations forward," said Mr Im, who is head of the preparation team.

Mr Im added that Mr Moon may meet Mr Trump after the inter-Korean summit, but before Mr Trump's planned summit with Mr Kim in May.

The North has always maintained it will continue to develop its nuclear weapons as a deterrent against US aggression but, according to South Korea, it later said it was open to abandoning the programme if the security of its regime was guaranteed.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe yesterday also expressed a wish for talks with North Korea, according to South Korea's presidential spokesman Kim Eui Kyeom.

Mr Abe's comments came in a telephone call with President Moon.

Japan said yesterday that Mr Moon had also promised to help Mr Abe resolve the issue of Japanese abducted by North Korea, and agreed to keep maximum pressure on Pyongyang over its nuclear and missile programmes.

Tokyo's insistence on including discussion of the abductions by North Korean agents could, however, cause friction between Japan, South Korea and the US if Seoul or Washington were willing to cut a denuclearisation deal with Pyongyang separate from any abduction pact.

Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi is also due to visit South Korea this month to discuss North Korea-related matters.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 17, 2018, with the headline 'Flurry of activity as Seoul gears up for summit'. Print Edition | Subscribe