North Korea plays a waiting game on nuclear talks

The State Department says it had 'working-level' contact with North last week.

Talks between senior officials from North and South Korea this week left unanswered an overarching question: whether Pyongyang can be brought into another round of multilateral talks on its nuclear-weapons program, let alone persuaded to give up its nuclear efforts.

Since North Korea asserted officially in February that it possessed nuclear warheads and was building more, a sense of impending crisis has deepened. The North's announcement last week that it is planning to extract weapons-grade plutonium rattled the international community, as have questions over whether it intends to conduct a nuclear test.

But ongoing disputes over how best to engage Kim Jong Il's regime - and Pyongyang's ability to exploit those differences - have foiled progress on "six-party talks," last held in Beijing a year ago, even as the North continues to press for much-needed humanitarian aid.

Participants in the multilateral talks - the US, China, Russia, Japan, and the two Koreas - have widely divergent views on how to handle Mr. Kim. While the countries are alarmed about a possible test of a nuclear warhead, there is little agreement on how to dissuade the North from proceeding.

"The United States is in a dilemma," says Paik Hak Soon, director of the Center for North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute, a think tank with close ties to Seoul.

South Korean officials, who held talks with the North this week, differ sharply with the US in their view of how much pressure to bring to bear on Kim. Experts say South Korea feels obligated to call for an end to North Korea's nuclear weapons program, but appears far more interested in steps toward reconciliation.

"The South wants to take advantage of inter-Korean dialogue," says Choi Jin Wook, senior research fellow at the Korea Institute of National Unification. "That's the springboard. North Korea offers nothing, so what it can do is give political assets, like symbolic talks."

US officials confirmed Wednesday that two senior officials met in New York last week with North Korean officials in "working level" talks to promote a return to the six-party effort. It was the first such meeting since December, though it falls short of the direct negotiations that China has urged the US to consider.

But in Kaesong, North Korea, where the Korean talks were held this week, negotiators appeared to be talking past each other, as if the meetings were "not designed for any discussion of nuclear issues," says Mr. Paik.

The North has been intently focused on continuing aid. "All [North Korea] needs from the South is fertilizer," says Mr. Choi.

He notes that Seoul has donated fertilizer for several years to help boost food production in the nation, where famine in the 1990s is thought to have killed at least 1 million people. "The South will give 200,000 tons."

Barring any progress on the six-party talks, one recourse for Washington could be sanctions. Those would need the approval of the UN Security Council's five permanent members, including China, North Korea's main benefactor and ally.

Analysts doubt that China will want to apply economic sanctions while holding out the prospect of a summit in Pyongyang between President Hu Jintao and Kim.

Russia would also not be likely to agree to sanctions - a step that North Korea has said would be tantamount to a "declaration of war" - while pursuing separate economic deals with the North.

US negotiators count on cooperation from Japan, but Japan is not a member of the UN Security Council and, in any case, is viewed with hostility by Koreans. Japan, moreover, has shown its own impatience with the process, suggesting multilateral talks that exclude North Korea.

Given broad disagreements, "I don't think the US is expecting any kind of breakthrough," says Kim Sung Han of the Institute of Foreign and National Security, affiliated with the South Korean foreign ministry. Still, he says, "If North Korea is rational enough, they wouldn't test nuclear weapons."

Rather, experts say, North Korea may find it more expedient to play a waiting game. "They need to continue nuclear ambiguity," he says. "If North Korea tests nuclear weapons, their strategy will have shifted. North Korea will be put in a corner."

For now, Mr. Kim says, "North Korea is trying to be seen as a nuclear state - even without a nuclear test."

One symbolic concession that's mentioned is a possible meeting between South Korea's unification minister, Chung Dong Young, an outspoken advocate of reconciliation, and his North Korean counterpart.

Mr. Chung may lead a delegation of South Korean National Assembly members to Pyongyang for the fifth anniversary on June 15 of a historic North-South summit between Kim Dae Jung, the former South Korean president, and Kim Jong Il.

"If North Korea accepts ministerial-level talks," says Mr. Choi, the South "might give more gifts" - including another 200,000 tons of fertilizer, plus rice and other foodstuffs.

South Korea's foreign minister, Ban Ki Moon, says the South is pressing for a package that contains the makings of a compromise - suggesting an economic deal in return for talks.

He says he is "optimistic" that the North will make some gesture toward talks, if not the ones the US says are needed before negotiations can resume in earnest.

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