Day 1 of sensitive and much-anticipated six-party talks on the Korean nuclear crisis opened with a tough, unified message for North Korea, says a Japanese Foreign Ministry official.
The official, who was present in the room where talks occurred, told reporters that the government of Japan called for "a complete, verifiable, and irreversible" end to all "[nuclear] programs, facilities, and materials." The official says that the four other parties to the talks "in one way or another," outlined the same tough criteria for peace and stability in the Peninsula.
He affirmed that Japan and others told North Korea that no country, China, Russia, the United States, South Korea, and Japan, "is pursuing a hostile policy, or an attempt to change the North Korean regime."
But the official did open the door for some form of collective nondiplomatic action, should North Korea not "immediately" begin addressing concerns of the other five nations.
"If the concerns continue to exist, we may be prepared to figure out how to address those concerns," the Foreign Ministry official stated. He would not say what measures were discussed.
The Japanese position, similar to that of the other four nations, required North Korea not to "develop or transfer" nuclear weapons, to "come into compliance with all international agreements ... including the NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty]," and to "promptly" dismantle all weapons of mass destruction, including biological and chemical weapons.
"If the five parties are in agreement at the start, that may have some effect," argues Bates Gill, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "Standing shoulder to shoulder is a good thing. But you can only push a desperate and vulnerable regime to the wall so far. At some point, you are going to have to give the North some kind of reassurance. And I'm not sure the Americans are ready for that."
As for Japan's hint at further action should the North continue to develop weapons, Mr. Gill noted this would not play well in Pyongyang. "If the Japanese, or the others,are talking about non-diplomatic means, that can't be reassuring to the North regime," he says.
On the opening day of talks, which were expected to be difficult due to a wide gap between the US and North Korean positions, the Americans spoke for an hour, the North Koreans for 50 minutes, and the other four nations for about 20 minutes apiece.
The atmosphere was described by the Japanese official as congenial. He confirmed that the US delegates did conduct an informal bilateral meeting with the North Koreans, and the atmosphere at that meeting, held at the table, appeared to be "something like what you see when a meeting breaks up at the United Nations, and delegates gather in a lounge."
However, the US rejected a North Korean demand for a bilateral nonaggression treaty, according to a report by Japan's Kyodo news agency.
The Chinese hosts designed the seating at the talks to take place in a circle, alphabetically, which put the US and North Korea delegations next to each other. (North Korea was seated according to its formal name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.)
The US has indicated it wants an immediate and verifiable end to the North's nuclear programs; the North wants its security guaranteed, and feels it has the time to draw out talks, say experts.
The Beijing meeting takes place nearly 11 months after a fateful visit by Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, who represents the US here, to Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. During that October visit, North Korean officials admitted to Mr. Kelly that they had a secret "enriched uranium" program - something that initiated a security crisis in Northeast Asia.
Since October, North Korea ejected UN inspectors, stated that it is reprocessing plutonium fuel rods, and has withdrawn from the NPT.
The question in Washington and in Asia, as the current drama has unfolded, has been: Is North Korea bluffing, conducting skillful brinkmanship designed to achieve a whole new set of security guarantees and economic benefits - or does the secretive and closed regime actually want to develop a nuclear option that would give it a whole new dimension of military capability?
Hosting the late summer talks in this city is a diplomatic first for China, which has often been content to "sit in the shadows," as a Western diplomat puts it.
"The Chinese have gone all out, they are putting a lot of effort and prestige on the line here, in hopes that the parties keep talking," the diplomat says. "It has not been easy for Beijing to work itself into a position between the DPRK and the US. That has taken a lot of effort, in the Chinese view."
In a briefing by a US official in Washington last Friday, the US expressed thanks to China for the effort, though the official also noted that the talks, "were in China's national interest" as well. Both China and South Korea are concerned that no violent destabilization take place on the Korean Peninsula.
The talks shed no new light on whether North Korea already possesses nuclear weapons. "North Korea did not say it had nuclear weapons and nor did it say that it didn't have nuclear weapons," a Japanese official said.
The US intelligence community suspects that the North may already possess enough plutonium to make one or two nuclear bombs.
The North has also been pursuing biological weapons research and development and is believed to possess a sizable stockpile of chemical weapons, according to GlobalSecurity.org's website.