Talks with N. Korea end in frustration

No concessions on disarmament

December 23, 2006|By Mitchell Landsberg | Mitchell Landsberg,Los Angeles Times

BEIJING -- Disarmament talks with North Korea recessed yesterday in another round of frustration for the United States and its allies, with analysts saying that there appears to be little hope in the foreseeable future that Pyongyong will agree to abandon its nuclear weapons program.

"Of course, we're disappointed," said the chief U.S. negotiator, Christopher Hill, after a week of six-nation talks came to an end without a glimmer of an agreement. He said it became apparent as the week progressed that the North Korean delegates had no authorization from their leaders to compromise, so that "interesting" informal discussions had no chance of turning into formal agreements.

"When you come to a negotiation, you ought to be prepared to negotiate," said Hill, who nevertheless insisted that the talks had not been a waste and would probably resume early next year.

Hill's North Korean counterpart, Kim Kye Gwan, left the talks with what appeared to be a threat to continue developing a nuclear arsenal.

"The U.S. is taking a tactic of both dialogue and pressure, and carrots and sticks," Kim told reporters. "We are responding with dialogue and a shield, and by a shield we are saying we will further improve our deterrent."

Chinese delegate Wu Dawei issued a statement saying the six nations had reaffirmed a September 2005 agreement, in which North Korea agreed in principle to disarm in exchange for security guarantees and aid. Besides China, the United States and North Korea, the talks included Japan, Russia and South Korea.

The Japanese delegate, Kenichiro Sasae, was quoted as saying the failure of the talks would inevitably raise questions about their credibility.

North Korea came to the talks after a 13-month boycott of the six-party process -- and just two months after successfully detonating a nuclear device. Given that history, and North Korea's insistence that the United States agree to suspend financial sanctions against the Communist nation before the nuclear issue could be resolved, expectations had been generally low for any significant breakthrough -- and those expectations were largely met.

"The fact is that North Korea ... is not interested in negotiating with the United States about their nuclear weapons program," said Jin Linbo, a researcher at the China Institute of International Studies and director of its division of Asia-Pacific Studies.

The North Koreans know that, realistically, the United States has "no options for stronger measures" besides diplomacy, Jin said. "So why should North Korea give concessions in this situation?"

Hill expressed frustration throughout the week that the North Koreans insisted on resolving the issue of financial sanctions before tackling an agreement on nuclear weapons. The United States froze at least $24 million in North Korean assets at a Macao bank in 2005 after accusing the Pyongyang government of a host of illegal financial schemes, including counterfeiting American currency.

There have been signs that the United States might be willing to unlock some of that money, and the Treasury Department sent a separate team of negotiators to Beijing to meet with their North Korean counterparts for two days this week. Those talks also recessed without an agreement but are expected to resume in New York next month.

Speaking to reporters last night, Hill complained that the North Korean delegates to the nuclear talks "spent a great deal of time being concerned about what is, relatively speaking, a small affair" -- the financial sanctions. "In our view," he said, "that's pretty small compared to the task of ridding the Korean Peninsula of these nuclear weapons programs."

For the cash-strapped and economically isolated North Koreans, the sanctions are clearly not a small matter.

Hill said he had gone into the talks with hope, based on "indications" that he and the Chinese negotiators had received from North Korea. He added that there "continue to be encouraging signs" but that they never rose above the level of informal discussions at the six-party talks.

Mitchell Landsberg writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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