OSAN AIR BASE, South Korea – As U.S.-South Korean war games continued, the United States and two crucial Asian allies agreed to meet in Washington for talks on North Korea’s attack of a South Korean island and the North’s nuclear weapons programs.
Although North Korean rhetoric remained high – the country warned the military drills could trigger “full-blown war” – a senior North Korean official left Pyongyang for talks with leaders in the country’s only major ally, China.
The visit of Choe Thae Bok, the chairman of North Korea’s parliament, to Beijing, combined with the planned Washington meeting, raised hopes that a diplomatic solution could be found.
Even as Choe traveled to Beijing, however, the North reminded the world that it was forging ahead with its nuclear efforts. Pyongyang said today that it’s operating a modern uranium enrichment plant equipped with thousands of centrifuges. The main Rodong Sinmun newspaper said in a commentary that the North is also building light-water reactors. The commentary, carried by the official Korean Central News Agency, said the uranium enrichment is entirely intended for peaceful purposes.
The North first revealed the program in early November to a visiting American scientist. A light-water nuclear power reactor is ostensibly for civilian energy purposes, but it gives the North a reason to enrich uranium. Uranium enrichment would give the North a second way to make nuclear bombs, in addition to its known plutonium-based program. At low levels, uranium can be used in power reactors, but at higher levels it can be used in nuclear weapons.
North Korea, which has pushed for renewed international talks on receiving much-needed aid in return for commitments to dismantle its nuclear programs, unleashed an artillery barrage on a South Korean island Nov. 23 that killed two civilians and two marines. The attack hit civilian areas and marked a new level of hostility along the country’s contested maritime border.
Foreign ministers from South Korea, the United States and Japan are to meet in Washington in early December to discuss the shelling and North Korea’s nuclear program, according to Seoul’s Foreign Ministry.
Despite the diplomacy, tension in the region remained high.
Today, the North’s propaganda machine issued a warning that the South Korea-U.S. drills could trigger a “full-blown war” on the peninsula.
“Our republic has a war deterrent that can annihilate any aggressor at once,” the Pyongyang’s government-run Minju Joson said in a commentary. “A northward provocative war means a self-destruction.”