Mon, Feb 23, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Last chance for six-way talks?

As North Korea prepares to sit down for nuclear talks, the future of the hermit kingdom hangs in the balance

By Yuan Jing-dong


The much-awaited second round of six-party talks on the North Korean nuclear issue is finally scheduled to take place on Wednesday. There is much hope that the meeting could result in the beginning of a solution to the 16-month impasse. However, there are also worries that no agreement will be reached, leaving Pyongyang and Washington with few options left.

There are signs that some give-and-take may take place at the upcoming meeting. Since the first round of six-party talks, which ended in little progress -- the North Korean delegation even questioned the very utility of such meetings in future -- various parties have made painstaking efforts to keep the process alive, with Beijing actively serving as an intermediary and Seoul, Tokyo and Washington striving to come up with potential proposals they can all agree to. Apparently, these efforts are now bearing fruit and have paved the way for a second round of talks.

There have been major developments over the last few months that in a way influence the process -- if not the substance -- of the six-party talks. Iran has finally signed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) additional protocol for verification in an effort to clear itself of suspicion by the international community, the US in particular, of its covert nuclear weapons program. That Washington played no small part in making sure that such a step was taken by Tehran demonstrates the Bush administration's resolve to counter proliferation.

Another major development was Libya's announcement that it would forsake its ongoing WMD programs under international supervision. Should Tripoli fulfill its pledges, it could be welcomed back to the international community, with the UN and major western powers lifting economic sanctions. This would demonstrate that compliance with international norms and rules can have major payoffs. While the Bush administration has never given up its demands that Pyongyang must completely, verifiably and irreversibly dismantle its nuclear weapons program, it has shown signs of flexibility, including consideration of some form of written security assurance.

Despite its rhetoric, which is part of Pyongyang's diplomatic repertoire these days, North Korea also has incentives to reach a deal. Its economic plight could not be redressed without outside assistance, including that from international financial institutions, which is currently blocked by the US. Meanwhile, aid from South Korea and Japan will remain focused on addressing humanitarian needs in the North rather than granting the hermit communist country huge sums of money in the form of investment and financial assistance.

China, a major ally of North Korea that provides large amounts of food and energy supplies, is increasingly showing its frustration with Pyongyang's inflexible intransigence. The frequent visits by high-ranking Chinese officials, including the second-ranking Wu Bangguo (吳邦國) last October, highlighted Beijing's interest in defusing and eventually resolving the nuclear crisis. Clearly, Pyongyang can ill afford alienating its major ally and ignoring its serious concerns.

These developments have prompted North Korea to take a number of steps. Official statements suggested that it is willing to discuss its nuclear and missile programs if it could secure a non-aggression pledge from Washington. Early in January it invited a five-member US group to visit its Yongbyon nuclear facility to demonstrate its ability to reprocess spent fuel but at the same time to signal its readiness to negotiate. Indeed, over the last several months it has repeated the proposed package deal, phased solution that trade US concessions to its refraining from continuing nuclear weapons and missile development.

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