Now nuclear, North Korea will talk

North Korea agrees to return to talks with six nations talks without conditions. What did Kim Jong Il gain?

A surprise three-way meeting between US, Chinese, and North Korean diplomats here Tuesday has likely headed off the possibility of a second nuclear test by Pyongyang in the near future. It has also restored six-nation talks aimed at denuclearizing the Korean peninsula, bringing a modicum of stability to a region rocked Oct. 9 by an atomic blast from the cultish military regime of Kim Jong Il.

Given the bristling anger in northeast Asia after the nuclear blast, analysts say it is salutary that Mr. Kim is returning to the table to talk with his immediate neighbors. Talks could resume by late this month.

At a minimum, China and the US – neither of which anticipated the test – need to be seen in the region to be engaged in efforts to deal with Kim, says Ashton Carter at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

Yet most observers doubt that the North, having spent 40 years on its atomic program, is likely to give it up without dramatic achievement. Kim agreed to return to the talks without any "preconditions," including the lifting of US-led financial sanctions.

"There has been no real consensus on the main goal of the six-party talks," says Shi Yinhong of People's University in Beijing, who says that North Korea's return is an attempt to regain "strategic flexibility and undercut the hard-liners in the US.

"Now, North Korea has successfully maneuvered to bring the region back to its former status quo," he adds. "They have relieved the tension generated by the nuclear test; the only difference is that North Korea now has gained a nuclear ability."

It remains unclear what status North Korea will formally enjoy as it returns to an international arena of diplomacy that it walked out of last year. But there seems little doubt Pyongyang expects to think of itself as a bona fide nuclear-status nation as talks resume – and is likely to push others to do so as well.

Such a position is leagues from the kind of dismantlement the six-party talks are based on. "No nation that has tested a nuclear device has ever gone on to give up that device," points out Scott Snyder, a Korean specialist with the Asia Foundation. "South Africa gave up its program without having tested. So if I'm a US diplomat, I've got quite a steep uphill right now."

Some Chinese analysts say that Kim's move back to the table is a victory intended to create an aura of reasonability to his program and nuclear test, and to begin a campaign to win back the good graces of China and South Korea, which he isolated by his surprise test three weeks ago.

China's initial outrage over the North's test was quickly tempered by a lack of practical options to rein in the unpredictable Kim.

But its role in furthering North Korean diplomacy was underscored Tuesday when it served as host to what were apparently seven hours of talks between Chinese and North Korean envoys, and US special envoy Christopher Hill.

In the Oval office, President Bush immediately gave credit to China for playing an effective role. An Oct. 31 New York Times report pointed out that in September, according to Chinese trade statistics, China sold no oil to North Korea, whereas it had been averaging about 12,300 barrels a day prior to this.

On July 4, US time, despite warnings from China, North Korea tested a number of missiles, including a Taepodong 2 ballistic missiles capable of reaching US territory in Alaska.

Reaction from other members of the six-party talks was mixed. South Korea, which supports a policy of engagement, was supportive of the development, as was Russia, which said the news was "extremely positive." Japan, on the other hand, stated that it "does not intend to accept North Korea's return to the talks on the premise that it possesses nuclear weapons."

US envoy Hill also sounded a cautionary note, stating that "we're a long way from our goals here."

News of the return by the North to talks was posted in two sentences on the Chinese Foreign Ministry website at the end of Tuesday. Earlier in the day, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said that Beijing was not engaged in a policy to cut aid or trade in order to force compliance by North Korea, and denied that a cut in oil signaled such a shift.

China is divided between traditionalists who cherish the revolutionary goals of the mid-20th-century communist spirit, and a more pragmatic and internationally minded new generation.

The Bush administration has long been divided on North Korea between hard- liners who feel that any discussions with a regime that grotesquely violates human rights at a mass level is immoral – and moderates who feel that negotiations are an imperfect but necessary tool.

What North Korea's test of a bomb shows, says Mr. Carter, is that the "six-party talks are a theory that doesn't fit the facts.

"The theory is that the US and China both highly value turning around the North Korean nuclear program," he says. "It turns out that China doesn't value that as highly as the US.

"The US would accept the continued existence of a nonnuclear North Korea," Carter says, but has been unable to achieve this through talks.

A US military official in Seoul argues that "the next round of six-party talks will not have any effect in getting Kim to abandon his nuclear program. But at least he will have to sit at the same table as Russia and China, eye to eye, and hear what his neighbors have to say."

Associated Press material was used in this report.

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