Six-nation talks here designed to dismantle North Korea's two nuclear programs have concluded with no dramatic breakthroughs. Official state delegations from Asia and the US could not agree on a final statement, or on what working groups will be established; and it remains possible the regime of Kim Jong Il is constructing plutonium-based weapons of mass destruction, experts say.
Yet despite reports of a lack of progress or even a collapse in the talks, the first since August, the American team exuded satisfaction as it departed for Washington, and the Chinese team seemed to glow.
Those were small indicators of what analysts and officials characterized as a gradual though powerful move toward steadier negotiations on North Korea, and, more largely, toward a regular mutual security dialogue and cooperation in northeast Asia region. Such a dialogue has rarely taken place since the end of World War II among Asian states here, which have often harbored historic distrust or animosity toward one another.
"This is a unique international forum," says a senior American official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "All the participants here [US, North Korea, Russia, South Korea, China, Japan] have a stake in what happens. We don't have any straphangers waiting to sell themselves for the right price. This is uniquely focused. And it has meaning for long after the nuclear issue is solved. A pattern is being set up that we have never seen before in Northeast Asia: a real security dialogue."
With US elections coming in November, North Korea's Kim Jong Il has few immediate reasons to make a deal with his main bargaining chip, his nuclear program, experts say. Yet through North Korea's envoy, Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan, who held two rare press conferences here, the North engaged seriously in talks for the first time for reasons that one participant described as Chinese persuasion.
In a final "chairman's" statement for the talks, put together by Wang Yi, the Chinese moderator, North Korea even agreed that a final outcome must be a "nuclear weapons free Korean Peninsula." One European analyst put it, "In August the North didn't even want to talk by the time the meetings were over. Now they are saying 'We are in Phase 1, and we plan to talk until the end. That's pretty significant.'"
Along with an agreement to convene another round of talks no later than the end of June, other factors have quietly moved negotiations with North Korea past the period of brinkmanship and threats one year ago when Northeast Asia went on high alert after Kim Jong Il began kicking out UN weapons inspectors and demanded one-on-one talks with Washington.
Not only has the North now settled in for serious negotiations, but the Chinese are "institutionalizing," as they put it, a formal multilateral mechanism for talks that did not exist months back. There is less toleration among participants, moreover, for a nuclear program by the North, and less willingness to consider weapons of mass destruction a legitimate form of self-defense. The US position of a "complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantling" (CVID) of its plutonium and enriched uranium programs seems less a point of debate. As recently as one year ago, analysts say, China and Russia often wavered or were ambiguous about the standard North Korea should be held to.
"CVID is not our mantra anymore. It is the mantra of China, Japan, [South] Korea," said a senior American diplomat involved in the talks.
Whereas six months back, Pyongyang's delegate to the talks did not actually negotiate, but spoke mainly off cue cards, the current Chinese-hosted talks have built in a give-and-take and considerable internal discussion. The US and the North met twice for an hour each time last week.
The result is more transparency, diplomats here said. The different parties could see each other's direction and positions more clearly, and had a greater collective sense of "where we are headed," to quote one delegation participant.
A last minute hitch seemed to develop between the US and China and Russia over North Korea's ability to define its nuclear program into the categories of "civilian" and "military." The Russian team appeared eager in the final phase of talks to allow this definition to stand, and some analysts felt it would allow North Korea to later extract concessions for two categories of nuclear capability rather than one. US and Japanese officials, as well as South Korean intelligence sources, have long felt that the Yongbyon nuclear facility has no direct civilian purpose. The North has protested that the reactor is needed for energy.
"I am not aware of any peaceful nuclear program in the DPRK," says a senior US official, using the official name of North Korea, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.