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Experts Say Korean Talks Neither Breakthrough Nor Breakdown

Senior South Korean officials are hailing a multi-national statement on North Korea's nuclear-weapons programs as a positive move forward. But analysts around the region are sparing in their praise for the accord. While they acknowledge it keeps the diplomatic process from collapsing, it fails to address major hurdles in Pyongyang's nuclear disarmament.

A brief round of applause broke out at a news conference in Seoul in response to unexpected news that the delegates at the nuclear disarmament talks in Beijing had issued a joint statement of principles.

South Korean Unification Minister Chung Dong-Young used sweeping language to praise the statement as the foundation for a "covenant of peace" in northeast Asia. Mr. Chung says the Beijing statement is a key step toward ending the Cold War era between the two Koreas.

Monday's statement commits North Korea in principle to dismantle all its nuclear programs and return to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, based on a "commitment for commitment, action for action" formula. That is a softening of Washington's earlier demand that Pyongyang "completely, verifiably and irreversibly" disarm, before receiving any compensation.

The statement concluded the fourth round of talks, in which China, Russia, Japan, the United States and South Korea have been trying to persuade North Korea to end its nuclear weapons programs. Until mid-day Monday, it had appeared the talks were on the verge of breaking down.

The statement is a broad overview of goals to be negotiated later, beginning at the next round of talks sometime in November.

Peter Beck, the northeast Asia director for the research agency, the International Crisis Group, says the statement's vagueness reflects a lukewarm commitment to diplomacy by the main opposing parties in the talks: North Korea and the United States.

"Talking is better than not talking, but neither side is ready for a breakthrough, or a breakdown," he said.

North Korea has said it has nuclear weapons and will make more, despite several previous promises that it would not develop them. In late 2002, after the United States said Pyongyang had admitted having a secret weapons program, it expelled inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency. The North then became the first nation to withdraw from the global Non-Proliferation Treaty, the NPT.

Kim Taewoo, an analyst with the Korean Institute for Defense Analyses here in Seoul, says the statement does not go far enough in specifying which steps North Korea, also known as the DPRK, takes, and when.

"We should not say it is a breakthrough, until DPRK admits to a specific timetable on when to come back to the NPT and submit to intrusive inspections," he said.

Without that timetable, says Mr. Kim, Pyongyang may refuse to take steps on dismantling, until some of its other demands are met. "North Korea may insist on negotiations with the United States over a peace regime on the peninsula, or normalization of relations with Japan, before it does what it has to do," added Mr. Kim.

Robert Broadfoot, of the Political and Economic Risk Consultancy firm in Hong Kong, agrees that problems may lie in the details of who gets access to Pyongyang's nuclear facilities, and when.

"I do not think you are going to see, a month from now, all of a sudden, Korea swarming with foreign inspection teams," he said. "I think, there is a lot of specific logistics that have to be worked out here."

Mr. Beck with the International Crisis Group, says the Beijing statement sidelines North Korea's demand for international funding for a civilian nuclear program. He predicts it will be several years before that issue is put on the table again. "Once the North has complied with all its obligations and demonstrated that it is living by the NPT, then I think it would be perfectly acceptable to revisit the issue of peaceful use," he said.

A North Korea specialist at Seoul's Korea University, Professor Nam Woo-sook, acknowledges that the new statement is short on specifics. But he expresses a willingness to give Pyongyang the benefit of the doubt.

Professor Nam says he believes North Korea will return to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and accept international monitoring very soon, if the United States and its partners provide half a million tons of heavy fuel oil aid a year to the North, as they did once before under a 1994 agreement.

That aid was halted in 2002. In addition to pledges of other economic aid, in the Beijing statement, South Korea promises to supply its impoverished neighbor with large amounts of electricity during the next several years.