Consensus on dialogue

Published : Mar 26, 2004 00:00 IST

The second round of the six-party talks on the North Korean nuclear programme ends in Beijing on a positive note, with the parties involved agreeing to resolve outstanding issues through dialogue.

in Singapore

THE latest diplomatic parleys on the North Korean nuclear weapons `programme' concluded in Beijing on February 28 with the parties involved expressing their political resolve to sustain the process of dialogue.

The mood on the eve of the second round of the six-party talks was entirely different from that at the first round, held in Beijing last August (Frontline, September 26, 2003). The six parties - the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea), the United States, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia - have now come a step closer to commencing "substantive discussions". The latest parleys were marked by dramatically low levels of sabre-rattling by the parties. The first round of talks had raised doubts about the future of the dialogue process itself.

Although no joint statement was issued at the conclusion of the second round too, in a departure from the previous round, China summed up the `sense' of the discussions through the `Chairman's Statement'. The focus is now on setting up through consensus a "working group" that could, among other tasks, facilitate the convening of the next round, not later than June end as desired by China, the host.

While the move to keep the dialogue process alive is certainly a positive development, the basic political thrust of the discussions has changed since the first round. The main concern on the eve of the second round was how the U.S. revelations about North Korea being a beneficiary of the Pakistan-centric nuclear proliferation mafia might impinge on the talks. But ultimately the second round helped reassert the need for a peaceful resolution of the issues arising out of the DPRK's assertions that it possessed an anti-U.S. "nuclear deterrent force".

At the heart of the current crisis is the DPRK's insistence on its sovereign right to possess an "asymmetrical capability". As outlined in a new study by Michael Breen, a long-time observer of North Korea, "the combined U.S.-South Korean forces are obviously superior to the North's in technology and have the financial resources for modernisation". For this reason, he noted, "Pyongyang has long stressed its asymmetrical capability: special forces, missiles and weapons of mass destruction [WMD]''. The crux of the crisis, according to regional diplomats and analysts, is that the U.S., in particular, and its allies, in general, consider the DPRK's capability a serious threat to peace in East Asia. U.S.-sponsored `intelligence' revelations indicate that the nuclear network run by Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan had provided the DPRK with the technology and equipment necessary for uranium enrichment in the 1990s. The DPRK is suspected to have reciprocated the transaction by supplying ballistic missiles and/or related technology and components to Pakistan. It is this aspect of the new `intelligence' story that changed the context of the second round of talks.

On the eve of the talks, Pyongyang not only termed the allegations "a lie'' but disclaimed even the existence of a nuclear weapons programme. The Korean nuclear crisis began as a result of a relevant `disclosure' by a U.S. official, James Kelly. After holding talks with DPRK leaders and officials in Pyongyang in October 2002, Kelly announced that North Korea had indicated to him about its secret uranium-derived nuclear weapons programme. In the U.S. estimate, it was in addition to the DPRK's plutonium-based `programme', which was the subject matter of an Agreed Framework between the two countries in 1994. As a consequence of the U.S.-DPRK non-proliferation accord, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) began monitoring North Korea's plutonium-related facilities at the Yongbyon complex. In 2003, the DPRK terminated IAEA inspections in the context of Kelly's disclosures. Consequently, on the eve of the latest talks, North Korea's plutonium-based and uranium-derived `programmes' became targets of U.S. diplomacy.

Setting the tone for the discussions, Kelly, who once again represented the U.S. at the six-party talks, said that Washington "seeks the complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of all of DPRK's nuclear programmes [in plurality], both plutonium- and uranium-based and weapons''. Kelly's formulation later came to be known by its short-hand version, CVID, while his call for the "dismantlement of... weapons'' added a new dimension to the agenda of the talks.

However, the DPRK's capability with regard to chemical or biological weapons continues to be outside the framework of the six-party talks. According to some of the non-U.S. participants, the agenda of the talks includes "denuclearising the Korean peninsula'' and not just the DPRK. However, there are two critical aspects to the issue: South Korea's long-time military alliance with the U.S. and Pyongyang's frequent demands that Washington give up its perceived right to threaten to subject the DPRK to a "pre-emptive strike''.

Responding to Kelly's demand, North Korea's chief delegate, Kim Kye-Gwan, said: "We will abandon our nuclear weapons programme [with no plurality] when the United States drops its hostile policy towards the DPRK''. Sketching a political context for this offer, which served as the basis of discussions during the second round, Kim said his country would show "flexibility'' while taking care not to deviate from "principles''.

The "principles'' were conditions that would ensure the inviolability of the DPRK's sovereignty and security, given that the Americans had already identified the country as a nodal point in the "axis of evil''. The DPRK's offer to "abandon" its nuclear weapons programme without mentioning that it possesses any such capability was seen by the other countries as a sign of "flexibility''.

The second round of talks was preceded by much speculation about the political message behind the DPRK's choice of Kim as its new negotiator.

Given Kim's crucial role in the negotiations that led to the signing of the U.S.-DPRK accord in 1994 and his experience in dealing with Washington over Pyongyang's missile programme, he was expected to raise his country's profile as a serious negotiator. As the talks, held in camera, came to a close without any walkout or other form of formal protest by one party or the other, it became clear that Kelly and others took Kim as a negotiator who mattered.

Kelly formally reaffirmed, within the solemn confines of the negotiations, that the U.S. harboured "no hostility'' towards the DPRK. He said that the U.S. harboured no intention of invading [DPRK] or attempting a regime change there. Kelly's assurances, largely an amplification of the U.S.' public stand, were a sequel to another critical statement. On the first day of the second round Kelly said that "the United States is prepared to join with other parties in providing [a] security assurance to the DPRK''.

While U.S. President George W. Bush spoke of the U.S.' willingness to provide the DRPK with a "security assurance" in October last, the reaffirmation of this offer by Kelly, in a formal forum involving North Korea as a prime participant, has raised hope that the issues at stake will be resolved eventually. However, Kelly has ruled out any exclusive "security assurance'' to the DPRK. The strategic implications of the U.S.' reluctance to provide a bilateral assurance will be studied by the DPRK if the talks gain greater momentum.

While such specifics did not form part of the Chairman's Statement, which was issued by China, Russia's chief delegate Alexander Losiukov insisted that a joint statement should incorporate not only North Korea's willingness to give up its nuclear weapons programme but also the need for some reciprocal "security assurances''. China summed up the outcome as a "consensus on the next round of talks and .... on the establishment of a working group'' as early as possible.

China's Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing underlined that the "launching of talks on substantive issues'' during the second round was "a step forward''.

South Korea, which was represented at the second round by Lee Soo-hyuck as the chief delegate, pointed out how no agreement could be reached on the wording of a possible joint statement. One of the main sticking points was North Korea's insistence on drawing a distinction between a nuclear weapons programme and a peaceful nuclear energy programme. There was a dispute about whether the DPRK could be allowed to retain a peaceful programme while agreeing to a CVID agenda. South Korea took the lead in promoting the idea of providing energy aid to the DPRK as part of the overall process of denuclearisation.

Japan's chief delegate, Mitoji Yabunaka, called for a "comprehensive solution'' that would address North Korea's nuclear and missile capabilities within the framework of the six-party process. He wanted the issue of the abduction of Japanese nationals during the Cold War period to be resolved in parallel, within a bilateral framework. As the second round neared its end, a Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman said: "Without there being a resolution of the abduction cases as part of a comprehensive solution of the North Korean issues, including the nuclear issue, Japan cannot participate in any sort of final solution which includes economic cooperation with North Korea."

The possibility of giving an economic dimension to the final solution was addressed by the other parties too, notably China. Japan was the only party to set out a condition for providing aid to North Korea outside the scope of denuclearisation. As for denuclearisation itself, China disclosed that "the DPRK offered to freeze its nuclear activities as the first step of dismantlement". The DPRK "expected other countries to take corresponding actions'' in such a situation. The issue of a nuclear freeze has been identified as one that requires further discussions. The question is whether it will lead to a freeze of U.S.-DPRK distrust before confidence-building measures can be agreed upon.

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