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North Korea Talks Again

The six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons program are scheduled to resume in Beijing this Thursday.

The United States has been saying since October 2002 that North Korea has a nuclear weapons program. Since that time, Pyongyang has pulled out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, expelled United Nations monitors and re-opened a nuclear facility it had promised to dismantle in 1994. Last July, Pyongyang tested several ballistic missiles and in October of last year, North Korea detonated a nuclear device.

Bruce Bennett, a Korea expert with the RAND Corporation, says the explosion's yield was quite low.

"Most of the indications say it was about one kiloton, which would be about a tenth of the Hiroshima weapon. That's not unusual for an early test and apparently, according to the press reports, they told the Chinese they were only going for about a four-kiloton weapon. So they were a little low from what they were testing, what they were trying to achieve. My guess is that they used a relatively primitive design behind what their newer weapons would look like, probably so that when they tested a new one, it would look like they had new capabilities and they were escalating the situation," says Bennett.

Failed Test?

Other experts say such a low yield indicates the North Korean test was a failure. One of those is David Albright, head of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security.

"Something went wrong and there has been all kinds of speculation about what that was. Unfortunately, it's a problem that can be fixed fairly rapidly by North Korea because they did get an explosive yield, so that the fix is probably straightforward, albeit maybe time-consuming," says Albright. "Another unfortunate thing is they may very well test again. The military may now be alarmed and they may want to see a full-scale test, so that it demonstrates that the weapon will work as designed by the scientists and engineers."

Albright says Pyongyang could conduct another test sometime this year. Many experts believe the October nuclear explosion was meant to be far more a political act than a military one. Jim Walsh is a Korea and security expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"Remember, it comes on the heels this summer of a series of missile tests that I thought were pretty obviously a political act -- that is 'signal-sending.' The North Koreans are trying to say, 'Hey, we're here. Pay attention to us. You haven't spoken to us -- nothing has happened in this relationship, you aren't addressing our issues. And if you continue down this path -- U.S. -- then we're going to cause mischief,'" says Walsh.

Darryl Kimball, head of the Arms Control Association, an independent research organization, agrees. "This test, unlike many other nuclear test detonations by first time nuclear powers, was not intended so much to test the device itself -- to find out if it worked or if it was going to explode at the design yield -- but it was more of a political message to the U.S. and the other parties in the six-party talks, that North Korea has the bomb and deserves respect. The test was a success in that sense," says Kimball.

Diplomatic Efforts

For the past several years, the United States has been trying to persuade North Korea to eliminate its nuclear weapons capabilities. That effort has been conducted through the negotiating forum known as the "six party talks" -- bringing together the United States, China, Russia, Japan, South Korea and North Korea. Those talks are scheduled to resume February 8th in Beijing.

Addressing reporters in advance of the meeting, chief U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill expressed cautious optimism. "We do believe we have a basis for making progress at this round," said Hill. "I would caution you though because I also believed we had a basis for moving forward in the December round and while I thought there were some positive elements to that, it did not fully meet our expectations." Hill was referring to last December's meeting that, according to many experts, achieved very little.

Darryl Kimball, from the Arms Control Association, says both sides have to build on an agreement reached in September 2005 that outlines specific steps each party must take.

"For the North Korea's part, they agreed to eliminate their nuclear weapons program in a verifiable fashion. In exchange, the U.S. and the other parties assured the sovereignty of North Korea and future economic benefits. The difficulty now is in determining the sequence of these step-for-step actions. And the North Koreans have, for the better part of a year now, taken offense to the United States' separate actions against North Korea's financial dealings in foreign banks, specifically a Macau-based bank called Banco Delta Asia, which the United States alleges has laundered counterfeit U.S. currency," says Kimball.

North Korea has denied any wrongdoing, but $24 million dollars belonging to Pyongyang remain frozen in the Macau-based bank. And the financial row has impeded progress at the six-party talks.

David Albright, from the Institute for Science and International Security sees a way out. "The United States knows that at least a third-to-half of the money seized is legitimate money and the bank can't hold it indefinitely and it'll have to go back. Probably the United States has gotten about all it can get out of this particular action at the Macau bank and it is probably ready to negotiate a return of the legitimate funds."

If that happens, experts say that could revive the six-party talks and inject new momentum in the negotiations.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.