Amid mutual suspicions, N. Korea, U.S. open talks

But few hope for more than a second round

April 24, 2003|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - For the first time since North Korea admitted having a secret nuclear program, U.S. officials sat down yesterday with North Korean negotiators at a meeting brokered by China, a session the Bush administration hoped would be a first step toward a nuclear-free North Korea.

Few here were that optimistic. For this first trilateral meeting in 50 years, Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly was met by a lower-level official dispatched by the North, and Pyongyang has indicated that the Iraq war has made it more determined to bolster military security.

Kelly did not comment as he left yesterday's talks at a state guesthouse here, and the three sides are trying to keep details of the discussions secret.

South Korea's Yonhap news agency, citing diplomatic sources, reported no movement on any of the issues in dispute, though the sources characterized the discussions as "productive" and without rancor.

That may indicate that China's presence has served as a moderating influence. When Kelly met with North Korean officials in Pyongyang in October, he accused the North of secretly developing a uranium enrichment program to make nuclear bombs.

Officials from the North acknowledged the program to Kelly during those talks, prompting an escalating confrontation in which North Korea has pulled out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and threatened to restart a nuclear reprocessing plant.

The Bush administration has demanded that North Korea dismantle its nuclear weapons program before Washington negotiates economic aid for the impoverished nation or provides a security guarantee, which Pyongyang has long insisted upon.

North Korea has contended that without a nonaggression pact, it must be able to deter a U.S. attack, though the country has publicly denied ever admitting to a nuclear weapons program. Both sides reportedly restated their positions yesterday.

The agreement to hold three days of talks, through tomorrow, was in itself a breakthrough brokered by China, a longtime but uneasy ally of North Korea that has grown concerned about its neighbor's nuclear ambitions.

By agreeing to serve as something more than a host and perhaps something less than a full partner in the talks, China deftly helped resolve a U.S.-North Korea impasse over whether other nations should have a seat at the table, as the United States had demanded.

The three countries last held talks in 1953, during negotiations for the armistice that ended the Korean War, in which Chinese soldiers fought alongside North Koreans. Beijing still supplies its old ally with food and most of its oil, but it has pressured Pyongyang in recent months amid fears of another conflict or a nuclear arms race.

Chinese officials met with both sides in the 24 hours before the talks began yesterday morning. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jinchao had said that the aim of this week's sessions was to "enable the parties to understand each other's stand more clearly and ease the current tension."

The Bush administration has said that future negotiations must include Japan and South Korea, where the exclusion from the talks has been a sore point.

According to the South Korean news agency, Kelly repeated the call for broader multilateral talks and declared that no resolution could be reached on the issues of nuclear programs or economic aid without the participation of Japan and South Korea. North Korea repeated its insistence on resolving the nuclear standoff directly with the United States, the news service said.

Chinese analysts said they are concerned about how responsive the Bush administration might be to negotiating under any format. After victory in Iraq, they suggest, the U.S. government has adopted a more aggressive stance that clouds the possibility of a diplomatic resolution.

U.S. officials have stressed that anything short of a complete nuclear dismantling, verified by inspections, would be unacceptable.

"The two sides are increasingly tough in their stances against each other," said Zhu Feng, a professor of international politics at Beijing University. "The problem is how to narrow that difference through today's talks. To me, it's impossible."

Analysts expect nothing more by week's end than an agreement to conduct further talks.

"It'll be a resounding success if there's a part two," a senior diplomat here said.

Korea watchers note that Pyongyang is represented by a low-level envoy, Ri Gun, deputy director general of the North American division of the Foreign Ministry. Ri's mission, experts said, is chiefly to report back to his superiors.

"He cannot decide anything. He is supposed to be listening," said Park Syung Je, a North Korea expert at the Institute for Peace Affairs in Seoul, South Korea. "I don't think they will have any results from this meeting.

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