US, North Korea struggle to agree on basic terms

After three days of six-party talks in Beijing, the US remains hopeful that a joint statement can be reached.

Despite a cautious optimism that surrounded the start of the six-party talks over North Korea's nuclear program here this week, three days of meetings have reinforced the North's image as a tough negotiator, as well as the difficulty of finding common ground essential to moving forward.

Few observers expect a breakthrough this round, which comes after nearly three years of a hostile standoff between the US and North Korea and 13 months since the last such talks. But hopes have been raised that a softening of tone between the two key players, as well as an easing of the restrictive "three days and out" time frame of past rounds, will allow the parties to forge a statement of principles on which to base further discussion.

"We hope that [the North] will see the logic, that doing away with nuclear weapons and rejoining the NPT [nonproliferation treaty] will contribute to its economic and political well-being," a senior US official said Wednesday. He added, "These are important negotiations for us. But they are vital for North Korea, as they will determine the future of the country."

Widely divergent definitions of a nuclear-free Korea - as well as who should blink first in getting there - have proved stumbling blocks. The US is holding to the proposal it made in the last talks in June 2004, that the North must dismantle its nuclear program in exchange for aid and security guarantees. North Korea rejected that proposal, saying it carried too many demands before delivering incentives. The North is calling for the "denuclearization" of the Korean Peninsula and removal of the US "nuclear umbrella." The US has repeatedly said it has no nuclear weapons in South Korea and will not negotiate over what it has elsewhere.

But this round of talks - the fourth in the six-party framework that also includes China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia - has witnessed an unprecedented series of one-on-one exchanges between the US and the North. "The United States has shown some flexibility," said Chun In Young, political science professor at Seoul National University. "At least communications could survive. We can prevent deterioration."

Thursday, the US team met with its North Korean counterparts for three hours, according to Qin Gang, spokesman for the Chinese delegation. He said the talks were moving in the right direction, but that "it's far too early to say if it's a breakthrough or breakdown." Chief US negotiator Christopher Hill said that he was hopeful that the delegation could start drafting a statement quickly. But, he noted, "this is not an easy process. It takes time."

Consensus among all six parties on a joint statement of common principles could deter the US from going to the UN Security Council in search of sanctions against the North. Some American officials, notably John Bolton when he was undersecretary of state for disarmament, have called for such a step. But the South Koreans strongly oppose it, and many argue that the US would get little support, especially from China.

With a joint statement in place, the parties could consider such issues as the South's offer of energy, which many saw as helping to kick-start the talks again, as well as other forms of aid. The North would also like to end US sanctions against it.

One flashpoint that is likely to be sidestepped for now is the existence of any highly enriched uranium (HEU) program in the North. Brent Choi, an analyst for JoongAng Ilbo newspaper in South Korea, says that HEU "is likely to be the biggest obstacle," since the North denies its existence. But, he adds, time might not be on the side of the North, which isfacing food and energy shortages. "If the dialogue ends without substantial result, the North will have to wait for another meaningless five to six years for another breakthrough," asserts Mr. Choi.

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