High-level talks keep North Korea nuclear deal alive

Last week's meeting generated talk of a secret side deal to end an 11-week impasse.

Martial Trezzini/Kestone/AP
Talks: US envoy Christopher Hill held talks in Geneva last week. They were the most substantive since the Feb. 2007 nuclear deal reached an impasse on Dec. 31, but didn't produce a breakthrough.
Michael Buhotzer/Reuters
Envoy: Kim Kye Gwan denies that N. Korea ran a secret uranium-enrichment program.

Separate agreements – one open, the other secret – may be critical to bringing the US and North Korea to terms on the disclosure of the North's nuclear program, after two days of what US envoy Christopher Hill says were "substantive" talks in Geneva with his North Korean counterpart, Kim Kye Gwan.

Although no deal was reached, the meetings were the most detailed since the nuclear process reached an impasse in December. In a sign of the North's eagerness to talk, Mr. Kim asked to see Mr. Hill in Geneva after failing to meet him as expected in Beijing the weekend after the New York Philharmonic's performance in Pyongyang on Feb. 25.

Mr. Hill said he and Mr. Kim covered just about every possible aspect of the nuclear issue, notably the crucial question of the North's efforts to develop nuclear warheads with uranium at their core.

Kim, however, is sticking to denials of the existence of the program and of charges that the North has exported nuclear aid and material to Syria, Iran, or any other client state.

Mid-level US diplomats remained in Geneva after talks before the weekend that Hill says were "very substantive discussions on format and actual substance that has divided us for 10 weeks" – since the end of last year when North Korea was to have come up with a full declaration of everything in its nuclear inventory.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says discussions are under way with the four others in the six-party talks: China, the host country, as well as Russia, Japan, and South Korea, on moving the process ahead, but advised not to "expect anything immediate." Hill said "we need to move faster" to fulfill terms of the agreement under which North Korea is to disable all its nuclear facilities and then dismantle them in return for a huge infusion of aid.

Against this background, sources here and in Washington hint at a formula for North Korea to detail its nuclear program yet sidestep the critical issue of highly enriched uranium.

"I'm quite optimistic they will be able to make two agreements," says Suh Jae Jean, director of North Korean studies at the Korea Institute of National Unification in Seoul. "One will be open, the other secret. A secret agreement is the only solution." Mr. Suh, whose institute is affiliated with the unification ministry, believes a secret agreement "will enable North Korea to save face and prevent backlash from within the US."

Under such an agreement, the North could acknowledge initial research and development of enriched uranium while publicly citing the import of centrifuges only for industrial purposes.

A meeting of minds on the wording of whatever deals emerge, some analysts say, may provide a face-saving way out of an impasse in which North Korea has not only missed the deadline for listing its nuclear inventory but also slowed disablement of its nuclear facilities at its Yongbyon complex.

Hill has said he doubts "we can have a secret agreement secretly arrived at" but believes "we have some ideas that may be workable."

Moon Jung In, a political scientist at Yonsei University, believes "the stakes are too high" for North Korea and the US to fail to arrive at a viable understanding. A breakthrough deal, he says, will be "maybe half-secret, half-open."

The US and South Korea have been intensifying pressure for North Korea to fulfill its promise in six-nation talks to produce a list of all its nuclear inventory. The US promises to reciprocate by dropping the North from the State Department's list of nations sponsoring terrorism and withdrawing sanctions on trade.

"They have not done everything they promised," says the US ambassador to South Korea, Alexander Vershbow. "The issue is convincing the North Koreans to provide the necessary level of transparency."

North Korea may be waiting to see what approach is adopted by South Korea's new president, Lee Myung Bak, who has promised to take a tougher stance on dealings with the North than his predecessors did.

Regardless, "I don't expect complete collapse of the six-party talks," says Choi Jin Wook, a senior fellow at the Korea Institute of National Unification. "I don't know what can be secret, what can be hidden," he says. "It can work if the US accepts a partial declaration."

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