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North Korean Talks Participants Pledge to Meet Again - 2003-08-29

Six countries involved in negotiations to resolve the crisis over North Korea's nuclear weapons program have ended three days of talks in Beijing with a pledge to meet again at an unspecified date. None of the six is calling the talks a great success, but analysts say the fact that the talks did not break down is itself a positive sign.

Following the conclusion of the talks Friday, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wang Yi outlined what his government considers to be the meeting's most important achievement: not a written document, but six agreements he described as "meeting points."

Included in these points was an agreement that another round of talks will be held. Before the talks began, diplomats and analysts said that if the parties - especially the United States and North Korea - merely agreed to meet again, that would be counted as a success.

Mr. Wang said no date for the second round had been set, and throughout the talks, North Korea kept up a drumbeat of antagonistic rhetoric, but Balbina Hwang of the Heritage Foundation in Washington says North Korea has no choice but to come back to the negotiating table.

"Despite all of its threats and bluster and its very aggressive stance, I think North Korea realizes it really only has two options," she said. "It can hunker down and try to withstand a great deal of increased isolation and pressure. Or, it can come back to the table and see what is offered."

Vice Foreign Minister Wang said there was a consensus among all six parties - the United States, North and South Korea, China, Japan and Russia - that the Korean peninsula should be free of nuclear weapons.

Mr. Wang said the six countries also agreed to consider North Korea's concerns about its security. One of Pyongyang's key demands before dismantling its nuclear program has been a guarantee from Washington, in the form of a non-aggression treaty, that the United States will not invade it.

Mr. Wang also said the six had agreed not to take any action that could aggravate the situation as long as the talks are proceeding.

"I would like to stress that none of the six parties would ever stand out against the meeting point I made just now," he said. "And none of the six parties would ever challenge that meeting point. But the key lies in the real actions."

Despite the pledge not to aggravate the already tense situation, both sides have indicated they are ready to do just that. In Beijing, North Korea not only admitted to having nuclear weapons, but also threatened to test them.

At the same, the United States and 10 other countries are due to hold maritime exercises next month in the waters off Australia. The exercises will be rehearsals for halting North Korean vessels on the high seas to prevent the country from exporting nuclear or missile technology. North Korea has denounced the exercises in advance.

Analysts spent Friday considering whether the three-day meeting was a success or failure. Even though no concrete results were produced, Charles Morrison, president of the East-West Center in Honolulu, hailed what he described as a hopeful beginning.

"It suggests that all parties are looking forward to a resolution," said Charles Morrison. "And I had understood that there has been general agreement that the vision should be a nuclear-free Korean peninsula."

Kim Tae Woo, a senior research fellow at the Korea Institute of Defense Analysis in Seoul, says that if the talks had broken down after this first session, that would have been a dangerous sign.

"So, even while we predict both success and failure, but in the case of failure, it can worsen the situation, so we are quite aware of that," he said.

Ms. Hwang of the Heritage Foundation says Pyongyang's threats - that it may test nuclear weapons and that it has the capability to deliver them - are nothing new. She points to past instances where North Korea has covered what turned out to be conciliatory gestures with aggressive rhetoric, and says this just may be a case of history repeating itself.