Nuclear test hangs over North Korea talks

Six-party negotiations start Monday in Beijing, in a political landscape altered by the North's test.

As diplomats gather here for a new round of negotiations aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear program, Pyongyang's recent nuclear test has clouded the prospect for success. With North Korea claiming nuclear-power status but other participants in the six-party talks refusing to recognize that, the meetings starting Monday promise to be testy.

Both leading protagonists, US delegation chief Christopher Hill and North Korean negotiator Kim Kye-gwan, said on the eve of their meeting that they were not optimistic about the prospects.

For the US, Mr. Hill has made clear that the immediate goal is to implement an agreement reached at the last talks in September 2005, in whose first article Pyongyang "committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs."

North Korea threw that commitment into doubt on Oct. 9, when it tested a nuclear device for the first time. "We need a sign that we have moved off the pages of the September agreement and onto the ground of the Korean peninsula," Hill told reporters before leaving Washington.

Mr. Kim, however, was quoted by the official Chinese Xinhua news agency as saying on his arrival in Beijing that he was not prepared to discuss his country's nuclear weapons. "We will not give up the nuclear weapons which are against the US invasion and threat," Xinhua reported him as saying.

The talks are the first for more than a year, since North Korea walked out in protest at financial sanctions that the US government imposed, freezing official bank accounts in Macau.

The political landscape has changed radically since then, with Pyongyang's detonation of a nuclear device making it a de facto nuclear power.

Neither the US nor China, nor any other state in the region, is ready to accept North Korea's description of itself as a nuclear state. But the test "makes it much harder" to impose a freeze on the North's nuclear activities, says Timothy Savage, an expert on Korea with the Nautilus think tank.

"You are not trying to stop something happening any more – you are trying to walk back the dog," he says.

That will be awkward, a senior US diplomat in Asia says, because of the pride North Korea's government has expressed in its nuclear status. "The way the North Koreans are playing this domestically, as a huge victory, makes it difficult for them to walk this back," he says. "That's why people are skeptical" about success at the talks.

The test also makes it more likely that the North will demand more from the US and Japan in return for any concessions, says Chen Fengjun, a professor at Peking University's School of International Relations. "Since North Korea already possesses nuclear capability, it will probably raise its request for compensation," he says.

The essence of the deal diplomats envision is that North Korea would give up its nuclear program and submit to international inspection in return for economic aid, energy supplies, and US guarantees of the ruling regime's security.

In preliminary talks last month, Hill gave North Korean negotiators details of the sort of benefits they might expect. "I don't think they should be looking for anything additional as a result" of the test, he said last week.

With Christmas approaching, this week's negotiations will probably only "provide an opportunity for each party to sense the cards in the others' hands and to adjust their positions in the face of a nuclear North Korea," says Professor Chen.

Some see the fact that China called the talks at all as a hopeful sign that Beijing had perhaps managed to persuade Pyongyang to consider a deal.

"If North Korea agrees to go back to talks, it means they accept the basic objective of the six-party talks" which is the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, says Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Mitsuo Sakaba.

It is unclear how far China is willing or able to push its unpredictable ally toward an agreement. Beijing's strong disapproval did not deter North Korean leader Kim Jong Il from exploding his nuclear device, for example.

Hill said recently that he had enjoyed "unprecedented" cooperation from China in negotiations paving the way for this week's talks. And with North Korea almost entirely dependent on imports of Chinese oil, "the Chinese have by far the greatest leverage," says the senior US diplomat. "If the Chinese decided to ... stop the oil, that would make a difference."

That sort of pressure would seriously endanger the North Korean regime, however, and "China's primary strategic interest is in preserving regional stability," says Scott Snyder, an analyst with the Asia Foundation in Washington.

"China is hesitant because some people (in the Chinese government) still do not see denuclearization of the Korean peninsula as a real Chinese interest," says Zhang Liangui, a North Korea expert at the Communist Party School in Beijing. "They pay too much attention to temporary stability ... and forget that a nuclear North Korea is rather dangerous for China in the long run."

With South Korea also worried about the consequences of an imploding North Korean regime, "there is absolutely not sufficient resolve in the region to insist that North Korea give up its (nuclear) program," Mr. Snyder says. "Nor does anything in North Korea's actions suggest this is the moment for a strategic decision" to give up its nuclear program, as Libya did in 2003.

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