N. Korea is world’s top missile peddler: U.S.

Martin Nesirky,SEOUL, Reuters

A U.S. official described North Korea on Thursday as an evil regime on the dark side of a dangerous frontier, but said Washington was ready to talk to Pyongyang and help with reforms if the North reinvented itself.

Across town in Seoul, South and North Koreans struggled to find a way to breach the Demilitarized Zone — the fortified border that divides the peninsula — by rebuilding rail and road links cut for half a century.

The contrast in style and substance was partly coincidental, but underscored diplomacy on the peninsula is once again in a critical phase, this time with the stakes higher than for years.

In addition to the North’s talks with the South, Pyongyang has held high-level meetings with Russia and Japan in the past week. The North has embarked on tentative economic reforms.

The North-South talks at a Seoul hotel were delayed on Thursday while officials tried to narrow differences, including when the North’s military will agree to talk about how to rebuild transport links in the border zone safely.

At another branch of the same hotel chain across town, U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton branded North Korea the world’s foremost peddler of ballistic missile technology and said the communist state needed drastic reforms to survive.

“Some 30 km (20 miles) from where I stand lies one of the most dangerous places on earth — the Demilitarized Zone,” Bolton said in a speech that carried particular weight as he is the top U.S. arms negotiator and widely seen as a “hawk” on North Korea.

“The brave forces of our two countries stand ready to defend against an evil regime that is armed to the teeth,” he said.

Bolton said President George W. Bush’s description of North Korea as part of an “axis of evil” with Iraq and Iran was factually correct rather than a mere rhetorical flourish.

Bolton, who advises U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell on arms control and international security, gave a detailed account of what he said was North Korea’s active program to develop weapons of mass destruction — chemical, biological and nuclear arms. He said evidence was compelling but had to remain secret.

“In addition to its disturbing weapons of mass destruction activities, North Korea also is the world’s foremost peddler of ballistic missile-related equipment, components, materials and technical expertise,” he said.

Bolton criticized North Korea’s leadership under Kim Jong-il, saying leaders were well-fed while the people starved. Sweeping change needed But he nonetheless backed the South’s talks with the North and underscored Washington’s readiness to start its own dialogue with North Korea.

“Working in lockstep with our allies, South Korea and Japan, the United States is prepared to take big steps to help the North transform itself,” Bolton said.

For that to happen, he said North Korea needed to move on several fronts, including an end to missile proliferation, allowing nuclear inspectors in and feeding its people properly.

He repeated Bush’s offer of talks “any time, any place.”

Bolton also noted there were some hopeful signs of potential diplomatic and economic change, although few signs of any movement on arms proliferation, Washington’s chief concern.

“Without sweeping restructuring to transform itself and its relations with the world, the North’s survival is in doubt,” he said. It was not clear yet whether tentative economic steps stemmed from desperation or inspiration, he added.

As Bolton spoke, North and South Korean officials were working behind the scenes across town to try to narrow differences before starting a second round of economic talks.

Washington is watching and weighing these and other dialogues with the North warily as it prepares for its own possible talks.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said in Tokyo on Wednesday a U.S. envoy would probably be sent to hold talks with the North. Bolton declined to say when Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly would go north.

In addition to economic talks, the two Koreas plan to hold family reunions next month and a soccer match.