Wed, Jul 14, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Amid all the drama, there are real choices at the Six-Party Talks

By Yuan Jing-dong

The third six-party talks held in Beijing last month concluded without much substantive progress being made. This was no surprise. Indeed, prior to the meeting, the Chinese hosts warned against any unrealistic expectations and advised patience.

The outcome of the meeting was eerily similar to that of the second meeting in February. No breakthrough. No joint statement. Only the chair's statement that promises a fourth meeting scheduled for September. If anything, a North Korean threat to test nuclear devices during bilateral talks with the US on the sidelines created much anxiety if not heightened tension -- though Washington seems to have grown used to such ploys -- and prompted unscheduled consultations between China and North Korea before the meeting soft-landed to its inclusive conclusion.

These downs and dramas notwithstanding, one could argue that this round of the six-party talks did make some minor progress which may bridge the previously procedural talks to more substantive discussions in September. While

all the parties again pledged their commitment to a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, the proposals put on the table were more specific this time.

The US for the first time

indicated a willingness to consider a phased negotiation timetable toward complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement (CVID) of North Korea's nuclear weapons program. Washington would not object to other countries providing economic assistance, including

-- and perhaps in particular --

fuel supplies in exchange for Pyongyang's nuclear dismantlement, beginning with a freeze on current programs. The US would also guarantee not to attack North Korea.

What accounts for the modification of the US' position? There may be several factors. One is that Washington's inflexibility threatened to derail the six-party process as pressure from allies and other parties mounted. China began to show its fatigue and annoyance by questioning the very evidence behind the US' accusations. After months of what appeared to be thankless attempts to coax Pyongyang to stay in the process, Beijing was not happy with continued US inflexibility and insistence on CVID, turning it from an ultimate objective that all could agree on to an impediment to the very process of diplomacy.

The Bush administration's debacle over Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and the Democratic Party's charges thereto also necessitated adjustments in tactics to fend off domestic opposition and appease allies, South Korea in particular.

A third factor might be the

recognition that principle alone would not arrest continued progress in North Korea's nuclear weapons programs, let alone facilitate their reversal and dismantlement. Hence a more flexible, albeit modest tactical adjustment.

North Korea's reaction to the US proposal was that it would study it in due time. Pyongyang reiterated its previous proposal of trading an initial freeze of the plutonium reprocessing programs at Yongbyon for immediate economic assistance and ceasing hostile US policy toward North Korea. This appeared to the US as a mere return to the 1994 Agreed Framework, something that Pyongyang signed and therefore was obligated to implement in the first place. For Washington, nuclear dismantlement includes both the plutonium reprocessing and the uranium enrichment programs.

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