Seven days after the start of the fourth round of six-nation talks on the North Korean nuclear issue, an agreement was reached regarding a statement of principles for North Korea's disarmament. A look at the content of the negotiations, however, reveals that the US ultimately is the big loser, and China and North Korea the big winners. It is not an exaggeration to say that China and North Korea ganged up on the US and dealt a great blow to its Asia-Pacific diplomacy.
Let's first take a look at the negotiations. This time around, the North Koreans said that they are willing to dismantle the nuclear arms and programs they already have, in exchange for international assistance. The problem is, however, that previous rounds of the six-nation talks have struggled to find a concrete solution to the crucial problem of how to dismantle North Korea's nuclear arms.
A solution thus does not depend on whether or not North Korea wants to dismantle its nuclear weapons, but rather on how it should go about doing so. Since the statement of principles completely ignores this issue, the question now is how there possibly can be talk of a "breakthrough."
Second, the fourth round of talks attempted to make a substantive move forward by not setting any deadlines for disarmament. In order to test the sincerity of the North Koreans' non-nuclear commitment, the US -- in addition to continuing the flexible approach announced in July last year when it said it would not insist on North Korean disarmament before it started offering assistance -- now added the recognition that North Korea is a sovereign nation, called Kim Jung-il "Mister" and agreed to bilateral talks between the US and North Korea within the framework of the six-nation talks.
The only thing gained by this was North Korea's "intent" to follow through on promises of nuclear disarmament and abide by the non-proliferation agreement -- but without any substantial measures offering the US any kind of control over the process.
That's not all. North Korea also obtained guarantees that it will be allowed to utilize nuclear power for peaceful purposes, as well as a statement from the US and Japan that they will officially recognize the pariah nation. This allows the North Koreans to connect the light-water-reactor project and the US and Japan's diplomatic recognition process -- both interrupted because North Korea violated earlier agreements -- to the talks on nuclear disarmament. North Korea does not even have to divulge whether or not it possesses weapons-grade enriched uranium.
Because the North Korean nuclear crisis is directly connected to its processing of weapons-grade enriched uranium, the fact that the US does not request that Pyongyang clarify the issue is tantamount to the US saying that it is not sure whether or not North Korea has such uranium. It thus seems meaningless to say that the North Korean nuclear crisis had been initiated by the North Koreans themselves.
The fact is that the US was not only the loser in the fourth round of talks, but it also missed the most opportune moment to deal with the issue conclusively. The statement of principles leaves the issue of North Korea's nuclear arms to be dealt with at a later date. Prolonging the process in this way will only serve to intensify the issue.