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North Korea Withdraws from Six-Party Nuclear Talks

North Korea says it will boycott the talks on its nuclear program. Pyongyang made the decision after international condemnation of its long range missile test. In this report we look at what is known as the six-party talks process.

The six-party talks began in August 2003 as a forum focusing on North Korea's nuclear weapons program. It brings together representatives from the United States, Russia, China, Japan, South Korea and North Korea.

Jim Walsh is a North Korea and security expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"The goal of the six party talks is to come to a negotiated settlement on North Korea's nuclear program," said Jim Walsh. "And in particular, to fulfill the promise of the agreement that was made in February 2007 at these talks, an agreement in which North Korea promised to dismantle its nuclear weapons program - dismantle all its nuclear weapons. And in return, the other parties would help North Korea with its energy, with its economic development, with it entering the world global economic system rather than being the isolated country it is right now."

Analysts say it is difficult to know how many nuclear weapons Pyongyang possesses - estimates vary from six to 12.

Walsh says the six-party talks made progress, especially regarding North Korea's small (five megawatt) Yongbyon nuclear complex that reprocesses plutonium - the first step in building nuclear weapons.

"It stopped running the Yongbyon reactor and if that reactor isn't running, then it can't produce new nuclear material," said Jim Walsh. "And if it can't produce nuclear material, then North Korea can't produce new nuclear weapons. So this agreement, as a first success, capped, froze North Korea's nuclear program. And then the various parties made other sorts of steps, taking North Korea off the various trading lists and terrorist lists to allow them to come out into the international community."

However, toward the end of the Bush administration, negotiations ground to a halt, as North Korea refused to agree on specific verification measures of its nuclear activities. Some analysts felt the North Koreans were hoping to get better terms from the incoming Obama administration.

But during a February trip to South Korea, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said "North Korean behavior presents a number of important foreign policy challenges for the United States, the region and the world." And she criticized Pyongyang's overall "provocative and unhelpful statements and actions."

Paul Carroll is a nuclear weapons and North Korea expert with the San Francisco-based Ploughshares Fund that supports initiatives to prevent the spread and use of nuclear weapons. He was in North Korea shortly after Secretary Clinton's trip to the region.

"The North Koreans were very clear that they didn't like Secretary Clinton's trip and they basically said: 'We don't see any difference between the new administration and the end of the Bush administration' - which to us was really disappointing," said Paul Carroll. "Because we tried to make it clear to them that they should be just be a bit patient, that Obama really was a new operator with a new sort of attitude and perspective and that they should expect there would be very different overtures. They weren't buying [believing] it."

Carroll says the North Koreans told his group they would launch a long range missile in the near future - which they did on April 5.

That test launch brought about international condemnation. Pyongyang reacted swiftly by saying it would conduct a nuclear test and begin reprocessing plutonium from its Yongbyon nuclear facility. And North Korea also withdrew from the six-party talks.

Carroll says Pyongyang's announcement it would boycott the talks was done in a crafty way.

"It's very interesting the way they worded their statement. It was very carefully worded in a way that some believe it doesn't mean they won't really ever come back," he said. "Because they said: 'We won't come back to the six-party talks as they are now constructed.' They've left some wiggle room there."

Many analysts, including Drew Thompson from the Nixon Center, say the six-party talks must be rejuvenated.

"Restarting will certainly take some time," said Drew Thompson. "We are going to wait for cooler heads to prevail. The United States is not, as far as I can tell, taunting or provoking North Korea. I think the Obama administration is taking a very careful tack. The North Korean response and refusal to return to the talks does not appear particularly reasonable."

Many analysts say the six-party framework must continue since it is the only multilateral forum capable of addressing, and potentially finding a solution, to North Korea's nuclear weapons aspirations.