The yet-to-be-concluded fourth round of the six-party talks on the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula seems to have produced a consensus on the need to attain the goal in a peaceful manner.P.S. SURYANARAYANA in Singapore
THE revived six-party talks on the "denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula" have acquired the proportions of a new political ball game. The fourth round of the parleys, adjourned until the working week beginning August 29, has already produced a political "consensus" on the need to attain the "goal" of denuclearisation in "a peaceful manner".
The accent on the imperative of "peaceful" means is of paramount importance because the core issue at stake is whether the United States will take military action to disarm the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) of its nuclear "weapons" and to neutralise its existing facilities that can make the atom bomb.
The earlier three rounds of talks, while not being oblivious to the "goal" of peaceful denuclearisation, had not come to any definitive conclusion about the need for a "road map for building a nuclear-[weapons]-free Korean peninsula" - a subject that has now come to the fore as a matter of diplomatic urgency.
The positive "spin" of this political magnitude was articulated by Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Wu Dawei who hosted the fourth round in Beijing from July 26 to August 7, when it went into an agreed recess. Significantly, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, who represented his country at the talks, was no less emphatic that much progress had been made during the "first phase", or the pre-recess period of the fourth round.
A number of critical developments related to the nuclear issue occurred during the 13-month hiatus between the third round and the commencement of the fourth round. In a sense, the developments lent a new sense of urgency to the talks, which was not lost on all the six parties - the DPRK, the U.S., China, South Korea, Japan and Russia.
The most significant of the inter-session developments was the announcement by the DPRK on February 10 that its scientists and technologists had in fact "manufactured the nuke" (atomic bomb). Moreover, the DPRK affirmed its intention to augment its "nuclear arsenal" as long as the U.S. maintained its "hostile policy" towards it. With that, Washington and the other five began to look for a quick diplomatic avenue to address the international community's "proliferation concerns" over the matter.
It was in this context that China and South Korea went into a diplomatic overdrive to persuade the DPRK to resume participation in the talks. DPRK leader Kim Jong Il, soon after the third round, said that there was no reason why his country should continue to engage the other five in talks as long as the U.S. would not change its "hostile" attitude. Closely linked to the DPRK-U.S. standoff were the apprehensions of the other four parties that Washington might resort to more muscular means to dispossess Pyongyang of its rudimentary yet potent nuclear-weapons facilities.
With the U.S., therefore, coming under gentle pressure from China, Japan and South Korea not to queer the pitch over the DPRK issue, it established informal contacts with the DPRK. In the end, these contacts, mostly at the United Nations headquarters, facilitated a resumption of the stalled process.
The talks, now officially styled as the first phase of the fourth round, appeared to meander over 13 days, with a proposed "document of principles" eluding the participants. China produced four drafts, the last of which found favour with all but the DPRK. The second phase is expected to take off from this point. As Wu Dawei pointed out, after the conclusion of the first phase, all parties will still have "the veto power". However, the planned "road map", essentially a set of guiding "principles" to denuclearise the entire Korean peninsula, cannot be finalised unless "the concern of every party is addressed". The atmospherics of the latest phase were "businesslike" and not confrontational, the U.S. delegation indicated. This paved the way for a recess as sought by the DPRK and not an indefinite wait for the next round.
Hill noted, after the first phase, that all the participants, including the DPRK, had begun to look at the same "universe" of issues. However, the perceptions of the negotiating parties about the same "universe" obviously varied. In the event, as the delegates dispersed, the U.S. and the DPRK remained at the opposite poles, even if the distance between them had been somewhat narrowed.
AFTER the recess was announced, DPRK delegate Kim Kye Gwan made no secret of his disappointment that the U.S. refused to acknowledge the DPRK's sovereign right to a civilian nuclear-energy programme as part of an overall settlement. The U.S. position, as outlined publicly by Hill on the sidelines of the meeting, was that the DPRK could be singled out for the denial of such sovereign rights because it had turned a nuclear reactor, which was meant for research, into "a weapons-producing machine" in the past.
Really at stake during the talks was, however, the proposition that a U.S.-sponsored consortium, which also included South Korea and Japan, could restart its stalled plans to build a light-water atomic energy reactor for the DPRK. The obvious objective was that Pyongyang might then be able to give up its own plans for nuclear facilities that would generate not only power but also fissile material for atomic weapons. The proposal of a light-water reactor was the offshoot of the "Agreed Framework" that the U.S. and the DPRK signed in 1994, only to discover later that it was not workable as it was interpreted differently by the two sides. In "Going Critical", "an inside account of the first North Korean nuclear crisis" sponsored by the Brookings Institution, three key players of the U.S. establishment - Joel S. Wit, Daniel B. Poneman and Robert L. Gallucci - emphasised that the basic premise of the 1994 "Agreed Framework" was that Pyongyang "would pose less of a threat to its neighbours and the world if integrated into the international community than if left [out of it]". This premise, according to them, remains valid today.
In a sense, one of the centrepieces of the "integration" process envisioned in 1994 was the construction of a light-water reactor for the DPRK's use.
After some initial spadework the project has remained stalled since 2002-03 when, according to the U.S., the DPRK admitted to enriching uranium (apparently, courtesy A.Q. Khan of Pakistan) in addition to "breaking" the 1994 accord and extracting plutonium for making nuclear weapons. In a sarcastic remark, after the latest talks, Hill said: "It is our view that they [the North Koreans] do need to dismantle all their [nuclear] programmes. This is a country that had trouble keeping peaceful energy peaceful."
Moreover, the U.S. position is that the DPRK does not require a light-water reactor any more. South Korea had, on the eve of the latest round of talks, offered to provide it with large quantities of power from 2008, the U.S. claimed. However, the DPRK called upon the U.S. negotiators to utilise the recess to consider a genuine "shift" from their position of denying it the right to civilian nuclear energy sources and plants.
Two other major aspects of the latest parleys were largely political. These were related to the degree of the U.S.' acceptance of the DPRK as a sovereign country with the right to exist and, at another but relevant level, the Washington-Seoul nexus.
As for the DPRK's sovereignty, Hill told the conference that the U.S. recognised it and harboured no intention to invade or attack the DPRK. It was, in a sense, significant that he departed from the usual U.S. practice and mentioned the DPRK by its official name instead of referring to it as North Korea or a regime.
On the other issue - whether or not the U.S. keeps nuclear weapons on South Korean territory, including its maritime zone - Hill maintained that there were no such devices. However, the DPRK's contention to the contrary lends meaning to the phraseology used by China as the host to underline the "denuclearisation of the [entire] Korean peninsula" as the "goal" of the talks.
In a broader sweep of policy, the U.S. has dropped sufficient hints that it intends to address the issue of the DRPK's nuclear-weapons programme(s) without drawing parallels with the Iranian nuclear issue or the non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein's Iraq.