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N. Korean Nuclear  Ends Year in Deadlock Over Nuclear Crisis - 2003-12-19


The international crisis over North Korea's nuclear weapons program is ending the year very much as it started: in a deadlock. The difference is that North Korea may have used the time to advance its weapons program.

In 2003, Pacific powers got North Korea to meet twice for negotiations, but failed to make progress on getting Pyongyang to agree to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.

China emerged as the key diplomatic facilitator when it brought officials from the United States and North Korea together in Beijing in April. Then - at Washington's insistence that regional powers be involved in any settlement - China hosted another meeting in August, which included Russia, Japan and South Korea.

Pyongyang began 2003 by withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT. Scott Snyder is a Korea representative for the Asia Foundation in Seoul.

"We are coming up on the one-year anniversary of a rather rapid series of escalatory steps that the North Koreans took in January to pull out of the NPT and kick out the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] inspectors, who had been there in the country," he said. "In fact, the net result of that has been that there is more uncertainty about the status of North Korea's nuclear development efforts than there was before."

Months later, Pyongyang claimed it had finished reprocessing thousands of fuel rods from a plutonium reactor it had promised to keep closed. And then, for the first time, it announced it had nuclear weapons and was ready to use them to defend its sovereignty.

North Korea's demands have been consistent in 2003: Fuel aid, economic incentives and a non-aggression pact with the United States before it will dismantle its atomic arsenal.

None of the five powers trying to negotiate with Pyongyang will accept nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula. They have offered a multilateral security guarantee that North Korea will not be attacked. The United States has firmly insisted the North permanently and verifiably scrap its nuclear program, without preconditions.

President Bush accused Pyongyang of deception in his State of the Union speech in January.

"Throughout the 1990s, the United States relied on a negotiated framework to keep North Korea from gaining nuclear weapons," said president Bush. "We now know that that regime was deceiving the world, and developing those weapons all along. And today, the North Korean regime is using its nuclear program to incite fear and seek concessions. America and the world will not be blackmailed."

For now, neither country is budging from its position.

Michael Breen, an expert on inter-Korean affairs based in Seoul, says he thinks North Korea will have to give in first.

"Here, on the Korean Peninsula, we live in the Cold War," he said. "Washington is living in the war on terror. So, the war on terror has come to the Cold War. That has changed things here. There is much less appetite for the nonsense that the North Koreans give. I think, the North Koreans that [who] are used to pulling other countries around by their nose [misleading] may be meeting their match with this administration in Washington."

Pyongyang has tried to counter Washington's tough stance with inflammatory rhetoric in its state-run media, such as threatening to turn the Korean Peninsula into a "sea of fire."

Mr. Breen, the Koreas expert, says the communist North's threatening statements are an attempt to strengthen a weak negotiating position.

"What we have seen has been a ratcheting up of the game plan for the North Koreans, to put themselves in the best negotiating position that they can," said Mr. Breen. "At some level, there is a certain realism, that they will have to negotiate these weapons away, and so, they obviously want to get themselves into the best position they can."

An expected second round of six-nation talks failed to materialize in December, as proposals and counterproposals were made and rejected.

China has again taken the lead in trying to break the current impasse and arrange talks in early 2004. To that end, the Foreign Ministry in Beijing announced on December 18 that it appointed career diplomat Ning Fukui as special envoy for the Korean nuclear crisis.