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N. Korea Nuclear Talks End Without Agreement - 2004-02-29


Although the six-party negotiations on North Korea's nuclear programs ended Saturday in Beijing, China, with no firm agreement, political analysts generally agreed that the long-awaited talks were a step in the right direction.

The signs on Saturday did not look good. A closing ceremony for the multilateral talks on halting North Korea's nuclear programs was delayed for hours after North Korea made last-minute objections to a proposed joint statement. In the end, the joint statement was scrapped, and a so-called "chairman's statement," issued by China, was substituted.

Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing noted that "serious differences still exist" between the parties. And North Korea expressed unhappiness at the lack of a "substantive and positive result," and blamed what it called Washington's "hostile" attitude for the failure.

But the chairman's statement did say that all six countries were committed to peaceful coexistence. It said that the parties had agreed to a third round of talks by the end of June, and it said lower-level working groups would be established to deal with aspects of the one and a half year old dispute more informally, and with less publicity.

Half an hour after the talks closed, a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters that he considered the talks to be "very successful."

Overall, North Korea analysts are expressing guarded optimism even while acknowledging the lingering discord.

Balbina Hwang, Korea's analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based research organization, says that the fact that Pyongyang returned to the negotiating table and stayed for the duration of the talks is itself a sign of progress.

"I think North Korea has to try to cooperate," she said. "They are not going to do it easily, and all of the rhetoric that came out is very evident of that, but I do not think we could have expected more from these negotiators."

Daniel Pinkston, a North Korea expert based at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California, says the decision to hold more talks shows that all six nations want a solution.

His immediate worry is that the November presidential election in the United States could distract the Bush Administration and slow down the negotiations.

"It seems that the fact that they [the talks] have not collapsed is a good sign," said Mr. Pinkston. "So yes, it think that it was positive. … The problem is the [U.S.] electoral cycle, and there might be incentives to slow the process down, so that is one of my concerns."

The gathering that closed Saturday was the second round of six-party talks, and came six months after the first round ended with no clear progress. Representatives from the two Koreas, China, Russia, Japan and the United States took part in both rounds.

Tensions between Pyongyang and Washington over North Korean nuclear weapons development have dragged on for years, and were re-ignited in October 2002 when U.S. officials said the North had admitted it was secretly trying to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons.

Pyongyang now denies having made this statement, and its chief negotiator reiterated the denials at last week's talks.

It has also rejected a statement by Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb, who recently said he had sold uranium-enrichment technology to Iran, Libya, and North Korea.

However, the North Koreans have publicly acknowledged a separate program, using weapons-grade plutonium obtained from reprocessed nuclear fuel rods.

North Korea has offered to "freeze" its nuclear development in return for economic aid and guarantees of security. Washington is calling for a "complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantling" of all of the nuclear programs before aid can be discussed.

Tim Savage, a Seoul-based associate of the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainable Development in Berkeley, California, questions whether such a high level of certainty can be achieved.

"They have to actually give up the program in its entirety," said Mr. Savage. "On the other hand, 100 percent verifiability is not possible, so the United States has to be willing to accept the fact that there will always be some degree of ambiguity."

Japan's Yomiuri newspaper nevertheless said Sunday that Pyongyang should follow the example of Libya, which recently agreed to dismantle all of its weapons of mass destruction under international supervision.

China's state-owned People's Daily newspaper said the talks had "opened the road to finding a peaceful solution of the nuclear issue," but warned that a lack of trust between Pyongyang and Washington was still the main stumbling block.