Tensions on the Korean Peninsula remain high in the wake of the sinking of a South Korean corvette in March and North Korea’s artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island of South Korea in November. The North is also enriching uranium and pushing construction of a light-water nuclear reactor. At Gilju, in North Korea’s North Hamgyeong Province, a strange activity has been detected hinting at the North’s preparations for exploding a nuclear device for a test.

Following the November artillery attack, South Korea carried out a series of military exercises, despite opposition from China and Russia. President Lee Myung Bak is trying to check North Korean provocations. He also cannot ignore the strong antipathy among South Koreans toward North Korea.

Pyongyang responded to Seoul’s military exercises with a threat from its defense minister, King Yong Chun. He said North Korea’s armed forces “are becoming fully prepared to launch a sacred war of justice, Korean style, based on the nuclear deterrent at any time if necessary.”

Given the current situation, talks between the North and South may be difficult. But both need to have dialogue with each other coolheadedly to prevent military clashes. The international community must help them with such efforts.

Upon his return from a visit to Pyongyang, former Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico said the North is ready to allow International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to visit a nuclear enrichment facility in Yongbyon, to sell nuclear fuel rods to the South and to create a hotline to prevent military clashes between the North and South. Pyongyang should take concrete steps toward returning to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty regime and offering the IAEA unfettered access to all its nuclear activities.

North Korea should scrap its “military first” policy and enhance the welfare of its people if it wants to be accepted as a member of the international community. Japan, the United States and South Korea, for their part, must strive to avoid a Cold War-like confrontation with China, Russia and North Korea.

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