Fri, Nov 03, 2006 - Page 9 News List

North Korea's concessions may be shielding new confidence

AFP , SEOUL

Both main protagonists in the 17-year North Korean nuclear saga made concessions to restart negotiations, but the road to a final agreement will be long and rocky, analysts say.

The reclusive Stalinist state confirmed on Wednesday that it would return to six-nation nuclear disarmament talks on condition that the lifting of US financial sanctions was "discussed and settled" in the framework of the negotiations.

The confirmation followed the dramatic Tuesday night announcement in Beijing that the North had agreed to return to negotiations, just three weeks after it stunned the world with its first atomic test.

The breakthrough came after seven hours of talks between the lead six-party negotiators from China, North Korea and the US.

Peter Beck, Northeast Asia director for the International Crisis Group think tank, said that "arm-twisting" of the North by China and a new flexibility from the Bush administration were equally responsible for the agreement. He saw new flexibility from Washington in allowing US negotiator Christopher Hill to meet his North Korean counterpart outside the full six-party framework.

"It's also possible that one or both sides were calculating some sort of October surprise," Beck said of the Nov. 7 mid-term US Congressional elections.

But Beck was not optimistic of any early breakthrough when negotiations resume later this year.

"Given the track record of the six-party talks, we have to have the lowest of expectations," he said. "There has been no fundamental movement in the basic positions of Washington or Pyongyang."

Also, no country which has advanced to the stage of producing a nuclear bomb has ever given it up, he said.

"The fact that North Korea has tested -- does that raise the price for getting it to give up its nukes? Given that Washington was not willing to accede to previous demands, the North could very well make demands that make the talks a non-starter," he said.

Several South Korean commentators also suggested the North may feel emboldened by its nuclear status.

"Its decision to return to the six-party talks is because it wants to be recognized as a nuclear-armed state through the talks," said Chon Hyun-joon at the Korea Institute for National Unification. "At the same time, it has come under strong pressure from China, Russia and South Korea to return to the talks."

North Korea had boycotted the talks since last November in protest at US moves to freeze its accounts in a Macau bank.

Chon said the North eased its stance that it wouldn't return to the talks unless Washington lifts the curbs, and that the US must have agreed to discuss lifting these sanctions within the framework of the six-party talks.

Hill said on Tuesday that he had told his North Korean counterpart that the US "would be prepared to create a mechanism or working group and to address these financial issues."

But Chon cautioned that "unless North Korea is assured that Washington does not seek a regime change, it will not give up its nuclear weapons."

John Harrison, assistant professor at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies in Singapore, said the two sides appear to have come up with "a linguistic bridge" on the financial sanctions issue.

"The reasons the sanctions [on the Macau bank] hit so hard is that the cash was one of the things keeping the party and security service financed," he said.

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