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Potential for Progress in New North Korea Nuclear Talks Uncertain


After more than a year of stalling, North Korea has agreed to resume negotiations about its nuclear weapons programs next week in Beijing. But experts and officials note this is the easy step.

After the good news about the resumption of disarmament talks come the big questions. How much progress will there be? How long might it take to reach agreement? Ultimately, will North Korea ever abandon nuclear weapons completely?

The United States, Japan, South Korea, China and Russia have been urging North Korea since 2003 to give up its nuclear weapons programs, which were developed in violation of international agreements.

Then last year, after three rounds of inconclusive six-nation talks in Beijing, North Korea abandoned the process, announced it already possessed nuclear weapons, and - at one point - implied it might be preparing to test them.

Intense diplomatic consultation and some economic inducements from South Korea appear to have brought North Korea back to the table. But what will be the benefits of more negotiations? Many experts say there are few options beyond talks. But some - like Professor Bruce Cumings, a North Korea scholar at the University of Chicago - warn that prolonging talks only seems to benefit North Korea.

"If the six-party talks don't work then North Korea would have gained some time to make more nuclear weapons," said Professor Cumings. "We'll still be in a very dangerous situation, and the re-division of this region along lines like back in the Cold War would continue."

The current nuclear crisis erupted in October 2002, when the United States said North Korea had admitted to running a secret, uranium-based nuclear program in violation of a 1994 agreement.

Under that deal, a Japanese, South Korean and U.S. consortium was to supply fuel oil and build light-water safe reactors in the North. In exchange, Pyongyang agreed to close its Soviet-built nuclear plants, capable of producing plutonium to convert into nuclear weapons fuel.

But construction of the light-water reactors was slow. Pyongyang argued the United States was failing to meet its obligations, not only on energy but also on a pledge to move toward normalizing U.S.-North Korean diplomatic relations. Washington maintains that the North Koreans have been reneging on the 1994 agreement from the start, and never intended to give up their nuclear weapons development.

Since the dispute became public, the North has expelled United Nations nuclear inspectors, pulled out of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and threatened to build more weapons. Name-calling and insults between the two sides have intensified.

Now, the Bush administration wants North Korea to "completely, verifiably and irreversibly" dismantle its nuclear programs - both uranium and plutonium-based - before giving economic and security incentives.

Pyongyang wants formal pledges from Washington that it would not attack the North in addition to massive aid. Pyongyang has cited a number of reasons and rationales for refusing to negotiate, including a charge that the United States retains a "hostile attitude."

Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at China's People's University in Beijing, says resolution of this conflict depends on compromise by North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and President Bush. "Even if the six-party talks get started this month, I personally feel that prospects for the final settlement are quite bleak," he said. "Will Kim Jong Il be willing to give up his nuclear arms programs? Will the United States change its fundamental position?"

Historically, experts note North Korea has dragged out negotiations as long as possible, adapting hostile and conciliatory tones in turn, to see which tactic works and in order to extract as many concessions as possible. Park Young-ho, a senior research fellow at the Korea Institute of National Unification, says this pattern is at play now. "North Korea has calculated what they can get from the United States. But their tactics have not succeeded in inducing concessions from the United States," he said. "That's why they returned to the talks."

Analysts say the promise of energy that the North desperately needs could make a difference. Electricity, along with tons of fertilizer and food aid, are vital to the survival of the impoverished communist nation.

In June last year, the United States offered to provide an energy package to the North in exchange for disarmament. The details of the offer have not been made public, but U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says the offer is still on the table.

On top of that, South Korea last week unilaterally offered to send huge amounts of electricity across the border into the North in exchange for disarmament. South Korean officials say the proffered electricity would replace the power plants North Korea would have received under the failed 1994 agreement, giving it access to sufficient energy within a few short years.

That still may not be enough to convince Kim Jong Il. Chun Hong Chan, a politics professor at Busan University, says Pyongyang is unlikely to let Seoul control its electricity supply. He also says the North is unlikely to give up the one thing - nuclear weapons - that gives it any leverage over its enemies. "If North Korea renounces its nuclear programs for good, it means it cannot use the card anymore, and I don't think a country like North Korea will give up that card for good," he said.

Despite the lack of certainty, experts say the offers on the table form a good basis for serious negotiations. If an agreement is reached, however, another serious question arises: can all sides be trusted to deliver on what they promise?

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