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North Korean Negotiations Could be Lengthy, Analysts Say - 2003-08-23

As representatives from six countries prepare for talks in Beijing on the North Korean nuclear crisis, the spotlight falls on the Chinese government's efforts to bring about a diplomatic solution. Analysts say that, while the meeting is a promising start, it is likely to be just the beginning of what could be lengthy negotiations.

North Korea pushed itself to the front of world attention in October, after U.S. diplomats said Pyongyang admitted it had a secret nuclear weapons program, in violation of international agreements.

The latest North Korean nuclear crisis has provided Pyongyang's closest ally and main supplier of fuel, China, with an opportunity to flex its international muscle. In April, Beijing brought together U.S. and North Korean negotiators for a meeting that was inconclusive. Since then, Chinese diplomats have shuttled to various world capitals, including Washington and Pyongyang.

Official Chinese media announced that Vice Foreign Minister Wang Yi will lead China's delegation to talks on the North Korean issue in Beijing. The meeting, which starts Wednesday, includes representatives from five other countries, the United States, North Korea, South Korea, Japan and Russia.

During a recent visit to China, Australian Prime Minister John Howard stressed the importance of the issue.

"The North Korean nuclear threat is about as real and as serious a threat as we can have anywhere in either the region or the world," he said.

Mr. Howard congratulated China for working to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

"China has more influence on North Korea than any other country in the world, and China has played a wholly constructive, positive role," said Mr. Howard.

Many experts question, though, just how much influence China has on North Korea. Chinese scholar Xue Mouhong, the former director of Tsinghua University's Institute of International Studies, warns against overestimating Beijing's ability to persuade Pyongyang to do anything.

"North Korea cannot be controlled by anyone," he said. "It's a very strange country."

Professor Xue says China is interested in maintaining its good relationship with its neighbor, North Korea, and, therefore, does not want to impose sanctions, or stop aid to apply pressure on Pyongyang.

"They [North Korea] think that they are all right every time, so no one can pressure North Korea to do something," he said. "If you put pressure, there will be a very strong reaction. Then, the whole thing will go wrong."

U.S. scholar Kenneth Lieberthal, from the University of Michigan, says the conflict between the United States and North Korea puts China in a difficult position.

"China has to engage in some masterful diplomacy, to try to get two very stubborn friends to develop enough flexibility, that there's enough overlap that a deal becomes at least feasible," he said.

Professor Lieberthal says a diplomatic solution to the crisis is possible, but will not be easily reached because of Pyongyang's often unpredictable behavior.

"They [North Korea] take one step forward," professor Lieberthal said. "They take two steps back. They take a step and a half to the side. They twirl in a circle. They then renege on the step forward they had taken before. They take a step to the other side. They take another half step forward. And then they start again. I mean, this is a miserable process."

Professor Lieberthal says there are pluses and minuses to involving six countries in the North Korean talks. He says adding more countries to the negotiating table makes reaching an agreement more difficult.

"One reality has always been that, with regard to North Korea, the detailed interest of Japan, South Korea, China and the United States are not identical," he continued. "I think, we all share a very strong interest in North Korea giving up its nuclear program. There, I think, there's a common interest, and I think it's keenly felt. But beyond that, the details differ."

For instance, many experts say, China does not want to see the North Korean government collapse, possibly sending hundreds of thousands of refugees across its border. Japan is concerned about the issue of Japanese citizens the North has kidnapped. And South Korea wants to avoid provoking a North Korean attack, and wants to pave the way for eventual reunification of the Korean Peninsula.

At the same time, though, Professor Lieberthal adds, there are positive aspects to involving more countries.

"This is an issue that is so core to this entire region that having each of the governments participate in the negotiation gives each of them ownership of the outcome," he said.

Professor Lieberthal says he expects an agreement will not come quickly - a view shared by Professor Xue in China.

"I think the six-country conference is a good beginning," he said. "But to achieve the ultimate goal, there is still a long, long way to go."

The talks take place in the Chinese capital from August 27 - 29.