In Korea crisis, China takes lead

The US and North Korea agreed to three-way talks in Beijing next week to discuss the North's nuclear programs.

That China has pulled off a diplomatic coup, engineering three-way talks with the US and North Korea to resolve the crisis over Kim Jong Il's nuclear programs, is a major surprise in Asia.

For the first time in memory, experts say, Beijing is taking an active and bold step to address a serious conflict in this part of the world, bridging what seemed a dangerous impasse between the US and North Korea over how to handle the latter's nuclear ambitions.

The result is a "great powers" concert between the US and China that is highly unusual given their historic political distance - and suggests months of hard work under the surface by Beijing, likely dating to the meeting of President Bush and China's former President Jiang Zemin in Crawford, Texas last fall. US-China-North Korea talks are described as significant both for the speed with which they will take place - next week in Beijing - and also for the absence of two central players in the region, Japan and South Korea.

"South Korea and Japan are missing because North Korea will feel too much pressure if two US allies are also allowed at the table," says Zhang Lian Gui, head of international relations at the Communist Party School in Beijing.

How substantive the talks will be is unclear. The White House is unlikely to back down from its position that the North must dismantle both its enriched uranium and plutonium-based programs. This would require verification, something that Dr. Zhang says North Korea will not allow, even if Mr. Kim could be induced to abandon nuclear options.

"It is hard to imagine that anyone will be happy without verification," says Scott Snyder of the Asia Foundation in Seoul.

"We are just at the start of a long, long march that will be very difficult," says Dr. Zhang, who thinks that Kim is unlikely to allow verification. Zhang predicts the three-way format will increasingly evolve into bilateral talks between the US and North Korea. The US negotiator is reported to be Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly.

Since October, when North Korea admitted a secret uranium program to Mr. Kelly, the region has been in the worst security crisis in a decade. An angry North demanded direct talks with the US; the US insisted upon talks drawing in Asian states with an interest in the outcome. Meanwhile, the North abandoned the nonproliferation treaty, kicked out UN inspectors, tested missiles, and is now poised to reprocess hundreds of spent fuel rods into weapons-grade plutonium.

A giant new wrinkle has been Iraq. The rapidity with which US forces overwhelmed Baghdad, and the fears this reportedly caused in the Stalinist North - one of the three "axis of evil" states named by President Bush - has brought new thinking in Pyongyang, experts say.

"The North compromised because of fears coming from the Iraq war," says Korean specialist Shi Yinhong of Beijing's People's University. "China's position changed slightly as well. It did not publicly deny shutting off oil for three days to North Korea. And China began to consider the costs of instability in the region, if the US turned militarily to the Peninsula."

Since the outset of the nuclear standoff with the North, the White House has steadily urged China to play a larger role in pressuring Pyongyang, and US officials have sometimes seemed piqued when results were not visible.

China, for its part, has steadily claimed it is working "in its own way" - to use the term of Zhang Qiyue, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman - in diplomacy with its unpredictable and often contentious neighbor.

China and North Korea are old comrades whose relations have been rocky for a decade.

The Kim regime is fearful of attempting market reforms that have transformed China. Kim's main dilemma is that "opening" to the outside world could shatter the vice-like grip he holds on his people.

China's main interest in North Korea is to preserve that territory as a buffer zone between itself and US forces in South Korea, sources say. This position has major constituencies in China's military and old-line power circles. China has also opposed a UN answer to Kim's nuclear program and has acknowledged its neighbor's right to self-defense.

Korea's demilitarized zone is often called the last outpost of the cold war; technically, the Korean War itself has never ended. Now, the nuclear standoff has begun to harm the region's economy and has spawned talk among hard-liners in Japan about developing nuclear weapons. The White House has sent many signals that it is unacceptable for Korea to sell or proliferate nuclear weapons technology.

"The primary interest of the United States here is the nuclear question, that's the fundamental issue," says Dr. Snyder. "Everyone in South Korea knows this must be resolved before we can get to any other issues on the agenda in north Asia."

Sources say South Korea and Japan underwent the biggest surprise over the US-Chinese breakthrough. South Korea has spent considerable time, energy, and capital in an effort to bring peace to the Peninsula through a policy of "engaging" the North.

A recent editorial in a leading Seoul newspaper suggested that Kim and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun meet in the coming weeks - something that would itself be a major coup.

Yet so far, Seoul's overtures have been stiff-armed by Kim. Some sources argue that the keen disappointment felt by President Roh and his Blue House team could bring a temporary cooling toward Pyongyang.

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