Ranks breaking over North Korea

South Korea and China move away from the US negotiating position as six-party talks reconvene Wednesday in Beijing.

Since confronting the Kim Jong Il regime with evidence of a secret uranium nuclear program two years ago, the White House has demanded a "complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement" of all nuclear activity in North Korea. Known by the acronym "CVID," and hewed to by the Bush team closely for a year of multiparty talks, the US position requires a full-scale retreat by Pyongyang before it can expect to receive loans, aid, and security guarantees.

Yet Wednesday, as the next round of six-nation talks on Korea's nuclear crisis commences in Beijing, Chinese and South Korean delegates are expected to break ranks, join forces, and politely challenge the practicality of American insistence on CVID.

As the states closest to North Korea both geographically and diplomatically, China and South Korea will ask the US to rethink what one high-level source in Beijing calls an "unrealistic" position. Both Beijing and Seoul are even prepared to discuss allowing Kim Jong Il to pursue a nuclear-energy program that is "peaceful," sources say.

"We agree with CVID in principle, but we question whether it will allow talks to be productive," says Jin Linbo, director of Asia-Pacific Studies at the China Institute of International Studies in Beijing. "China feels that CVID is a final goal, not something that needs to be complete right now."

Since February, differences between China and the US have widened in the nuclear-talks process, sources in both Washington and Beijing confirm. Last month China's deputy foreign minister suggested for the first time that Beijing had no convincing evidence that North Korea had or is pursuing the uranium program that sparked the nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula. The claim has been made at times in South Korea as well, to the frustration of US officials.

Some Korean affairs experts both in Asia and the US have said for months that the "complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement" formula is problematic. North Korea has never accepted the principle of CVID and has always balked at agreeing to that as a solution, including in the first round of six-nation talks last August. It has been clear for months that Kim Jong Il is waiting for the outcome of US elections in November before deciding what strategy to pursue, experts say.

Some analysts say the new request to Washington by Seoul and Beijing is mainly aimed at keeping the highly sensitive Kim engaged as the process waits for the elections. The move ensures that Kim is not "ganged up on in the talks" until the next diplomatic round, as a Beijing source put it. In exchange for the US backing off its CVID demand, the Beijing-Seoul plan would secure a freeze by the North on its nuclear weapons program, and a promise to allow inspections of the Yongbyon nuclear facility.

Monday a preliminary "working group" convened in Beijing prior to Wednesday's opening of talks.

South Korea's new approach emerged in talks and seminars over the past week, marking the fourth anniversary of the inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang between North Korea's Kim, and Kim Dae Jung, then president of South Korea.

"We hope the talks in Beijing will make a breakthrough," says Moon Jung In, the Yonsei University political science professor who organized the Korean conference.

"The United States should allow the peaceful use of atomic energy," says Mr. Moon. The formula, he said, would be "a freeze" on North Korea's program for developing nuclear warheads and "inspection of all nuclear weapons."

Moon's views summarize the ambition of an increasingly influential liberal elite in South Korea to get the US to tone down its insistence on CVID while accepting the notion of a freeze as an interim step on the way to that final goal.

The Bush administration's position is intended to end what it sees as the North's perpetual use of the diplomatic process to gain money and attention.

The Korean nuclear crisis emerged in Oct. 2002 when US envoy James Kelley, in Pyongyang, confronted North Korean officials with evidence of a secret highly enriched uranium program, or HEU.

North Korea at the end of 2002 expelled inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency from Yongbyon where some 8,000 spent plutonium fuel rods were sealed and under video surveillance as part of the 1994 Geneva framework agreement negotiated by the Clinton administration. In early 2003 the North removed those nuclear rods from the Yongbyon cooling pond and restarted the five-megawatt experimental reactor there. That reactor is suspected to have produced one or two warheads before the 1994 agreement was signed. US intelligence analysts believe the North may have fabricated several more warheads over the past year.

North Korea, having acknowledged the HEU program to Mr. Kelley, has since steadfastly denied its existence. The denials contradict evidence of North Korean transactions with Pakistan as well as the word of Abdul Qadeer Khan, "father" of the Pakistan atomic bomb, who has said he saw facilities for HEU development during a visit to North Korea.

Chinese questioning of the existence of HEU, which broke in an interview in the New York Times last month, is thought to be mainly a public position. China insists that it has not received enough evidence from the US to make a conclusive determination on the existence of a uranium program in the North. But this does not mean Chinese officials have ruled out a uranium program by Kim. When pressed, a senior Chinese source in Beijing pointed out that "we don't have complete belief in what North Korea has said. They [North Korean officials] have made a great deal of contradictory statements."

Along with the US, North and South Korea, and China, the six-party talks hosted include Russia and Japan. They are expected to last from three to five days and to be resumed next fall. While the North Korean crisis burned hotly in 2003, the US presidential election and events in the Middle East have drawn attention from the issue. Little intelligence is available on how or whether Kim has continued to reprocess the plutonium fuel rods.

The Asian partners of the six-party talks, particularly South Korea and China, insist that the talks will continue regardless of whether or not the current round yields any breakthroughs.

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