Sticking to their guns

Print edition : July 30, 2004

The third round of the six-party negotiations on the North Korean nuclear weapons issue sees little progress as North Korea speaks of "freezing" the programme while the United States looks at this position with suspicion.

in Singapore

The chief delegates to the six-party talks on the North Korean nuclear issue in Beijing on June 23. (From left) South Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Lee Soo-hyuck, Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Wang Yi, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, North Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Kim Kye-Gwan, Japanese chief delegate Mitoji Yabunaka and Russian Ambassador-at-Large Alexander Alexeyev.-AP

PROGRESS, measurable as a diplomatic nuance rather than a clear breakthrough, marked the third round of six-party talks on the North Korean nuclear weapons programme. With the parties agreeing "in principle" to sustain the process through another round by the end of September, the focus now shifts to some of the many contentious specifics.

After the talks effort concluded in Beijing on June 26, Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who chaired the effort, made some candid comments at a press conference. A quick-glance summary of the positions of the parties - the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea), the United States, South Korea, Japan, Russia and China - to the negotiations, his comments are worth quoting.

"The DPRK expressed its willingness to give up all projects related to nuclear weapons in a transparent manner. [Pyongyang] would like to accept inspections to this end," Wang said. In this specific context, the DPRK stressed that its willingness to accept "nuclear freezing" "is merely the first step of nuclear [weapons programme] abandonment". For the first time, the DPRK put forward a "concrete plan" for the implementation of "nuclear freezing".

For the first time, the U.S., too, "worked out a comprehensive plan for the complete resolution of the nuclear issue", Wang pointed out. Noting that the U.S. reaffirmed "it would not adopt any hostile policies [towards] the DPRK", he delivered the punch-line about the larger problems at stake in the following terms: "Meanwhile, we clearly understand that the nuclear issue is highly complicated and there is still a serious lack of mutual trust between [the] relevant parties."

The main relevant parties being Washington and Pyongyang, the meeting in Jakarta between U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and DPRK Foreign Minister Paek Nam-sun, on July 2, on the margins of the annual meeting of a regional security forum, acquired political importance.

It was certainly not the first high-level political contact between the two countries since President George W. Bush's infamous description of North Korea, Iran and Saddam Hussein's Iraq as forming an "axis of evil". Powell and Paek had earlier met on the sidelines of the same regional forum at Bandar Seri-Begawan (Brunei) on July 31, 2002. That meeting, over a cup of coffee, was meant to break the ice as tensions had heightened between the two countries following the Bush remark. The latest Powell-Paek meeting, in contrast, was meant to give a political thrust, however modest, to the current channels of communication between the two sides. In the event, this meeting too, yielded not even a positive sound bite (even without substance). Not that anyone expected a quick-fix political formulation. But the U.S.-DPRK hiatus came in for special mention by Wang. "The basis of the [six-party] talks is not solid enough, and there are still a number of differences and even opposing ideas on the scope and means of the [nuclear weapons programme] abandonment, freezing and corresponding measures," he underlined.

Responding to questions from the media, Wang made it clear that the issues of "abandonment" and "freezing" remained the "two major difficulties" at the latest round. Asked specifically why his summing-up statement did not include any reference to the DPRK's willingness to "freeze" its nuclear weapons programme, he said the statement was "a collection of all consensus reached" at the meeting. "Fully authorised by the governments of the six parties after serious and careful negotiations," the Chairman's statement mentioned a few times the "first steps" towards the goal of denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. These "first steps" would include a "freeze" by the DPRK of its atomic weapons programme, he hinted. It is this diplomatic nuance that forms the pith and substance of the progress achieved during the third round.

Now, the idea of a "freeze" and the duration of any such phase, even if only as a prelude to the ultimate dismantling of the DPRK's nuclear weapons capabilities, are still not acceptable to the U.S. The reason is that Washington does not like the idea of a "freeze" to freeze the movement towards the total elimination of Pyongyang's nuclear weapons capabilities.

Wang put this issue thus: "The DPRK plan focusses on the first steps towards nuclear abandonment, while the U.S. plan focusses more on the specific means of comprehensive nuclear abandonment [not a freeze as such]." Given that the chief U.S. delegate, James Kelly, had expressed the "hope" that North Korea could abandon all its nuclear projects in "a permanent, comprehensive and transparent manner" and given that the chief DPRK delegate, Kim Kye-gwan, had said that Pyongyang "could abandon all [its] nuclear weapons and relevant projects", the common ground and divergence, as regards the positions of the U.S. and the DPRK on the fundamental issues, cannot be missed.

The U.S. tends to suspect that a "freeze" could turn out to be the DPRK's ruse, a red herring being drawn across the dialogue track to delay or even dodge the issue of "a comprehensive, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement (CVID)" of Pyongyang's nuclear weapons programmes. This plurality of programmes is a reference to the U.S.' insistence that North Korea is currently seeking to produce nuclear weapons through two different routes - the use of plutonium, which is still available to Pyongyang from its old nuclear energy plants, and the uranium enrichment process, for which Pakistan is suspected to have provided the technical expertise. The question of Pakistan's own capabilities and their origin does not impinge on the six-party talks, though.

From the DPRK's perspective, any insistence by the U.S. on the existence of a plurality of programmes is only a complicating factor. While the CVID was generally agreed upon during the second round of the talks as a desirable goal, the DPRK did not acknowledge, even on that occasion, that a uranium enrichment programme had been added to the plutonium-use plans.

About the exchanges on the issue of plurality at the latest round, Wang noted that "it is on the question of enriched uranium that the U.S. and the DPRK hold very different views". However, it is the DPRK's offer of a "freeze" that is prominently subsumed in the latest accord on the need to define the "first steps" towards the CVID (although the nomenclature CVID itself was not specifically used by Wang in his June 26 statement).

The parties have now authorised a relevant Working Group to "convene a meeting as early as possible to discuss and define the scope, duration, verification and corresponding measures for the first steps towards the goal of denuclearisation".

The Working Group, which was set up following the second round, had already met twice to prepare the ground for the latest parleys. It consists of the same six parties, although the representatives have greater technical skills than the diplomats who participate in the main conferences of this process.

The latest collective accord on the initiation of a process to define the "first steps" is indicative of some willingness on the part of the U.S. as well to consider "nuclear freeze" as one of the first steps. However, it is anybody's guess, especially in view of the presidential election in the U.S., whether the "freeze" formula will indeed take off as a viable option.

Wang's summing up of the general positions of the other parties in this process was no less revealing. He said: "China, Russia, the Republic of Korea [South Korea] and Japan would like to adopt simultaneous actions to address the concerns of the DPRK. The U.S. also indicated that it would study the requirements of the DPRK."

Pyongyang's "concerns" pertain to its sense of insecurity in the face of the overwhelming military supremacy of the U.S. in the DPRK's immediate neighbourhood. Pyongyang has often interpreted various U.S. pronouncements as coded or even highly transparent threats to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the DPRK.

The keenness of some parties to consider "simultaneous action" in this context has to do with the perception that the DPRK should be compensated at all stages of its movement towards a comprehensive dismantling of its nuclear weapons programme. It is this aspect that was summed up as an accord on resorting to "words for words" and "deeds for deeds".

The basic issue here is one of providing some security guarantees to the DPRK, an aspect that Bush acknowledged during his visit to East Asia in October 2003.

Perceivable, beyond these immediate diplomatic nuances, is the critical importance of the dynamics of the U.S.-China interactions on this issue. Wang Jisi, a well-known Chinese expert on U.S. policies, noted recently that Beijing had already signalled a critical "message" on the Korean nuclear issue. "The message was that Beijing and Washington share more common ground than Beijing and Pyongyang do."

This was based on the "official news report" that former Chinese President Jiang Zemin had told Bush that China did not endorse the DPRK's decision to withdraw from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty - a pullout which is behind the current crisis.

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