Why only North Korea may be ready for six-party talks

North Korea leader Kim Jong-il confirmed his readiness to rejoin six-party talks after a visit to China last week. But the US, Japan, and South Korea want to see key steps first.

Ju Peng/Xinhua/AP
Chinese President Hu Jintao, right, meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in Changchun, in northeast China's Jilin province, Aug. 27. Kim Jong-il pleased his Chinese hosts during a secretive visit to China last week, confirming his readiness to rejoin six-party talks.

Beijing is back to herding cats in its oft-frustrated efforts to relaunch six-nation talks aimed at ending North Korea’s nuclear program.

North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il pleased his Chinese hosts during a secretive visit here last week, confirming his readiness to rejoin the negotiations.

Mr. Kim said he “hoped for an early resumption” of the talks, according to a report by Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, on Monday.

But now other key nations such as the United States, Japan, and South Korea are reluctant to negotiate. Russia is also a member of the six-party talks.

“It is too early to resume the six-party talks,” Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada told China’s nuclear envoy Wu Dawei on Tuesday, according to a ministry statement. Mr. Okada cited regional tensions following the sinking of a South Korean warship last March, killing 46 sailors, that international investigators have blamed on Pyongyang.

“We are prepared to engage North Korea, but we need to see a change in North Korean behavior first," agreed Robert Einhorn, Washington’s point man on nuclear nonproliferation, as he announced a new set of US sanctions against Pyongyang on Monday.

“The US is essentially requiring as a precondition that North Korea make the first move back onto the denuclearization path, and North Korea has shown no indication it is ready to make that move,” says Scott Snyder, head of the Center for US-Korea Policy at The Asia Foundation in Washington.

“That is China’s problem” as the chair of the six-party talks, adds Daniel Pinkston, a Seoul-based analyst with the International Crisis Group, a diplomatic think tank. “Beijing has to convince the other parties that North Korea is negotiating in good faith.”

South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-Hwan told Japanese journalists last week that before any fresh talks, Pyongyang “should resume disabling its key nuclear facilities, bring in inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency,” and live up to earlier commitments to wind down its nuclear program.

North Korea expelled inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), stopped dismantling its reactor at Yongbyon, and pulled out of the six-party talks in May 2009 in a furious reaction to a United Nations condemnation of a missile test. Pyongyang later exploded a nuclear device for the second time. The hermit nation is believed to have enough weaponized plutonium to make several atomic bombs.

The prospect of new talks to persuade North Korea to reverse course suffered a blow with the sinking of the Cheonan corvette in March. South Korea demanded an apology for the incident, but Pyongyang has denied having had anything to do with it.

Signs are now emerging that Seoul might agree to resume talks without a formal apology. A South Korean Foreign Ministry official last week told reporters that “the sinking of the Cheonan… and the resumption of six-party talks are different matters,” according to the Yonhap news agency.

“It is hard to see North Korea ever apologizing,” says David Kang, head of the Korean Studies Institute at the University of Southern California. “So the US is looking for a way out of the impasse the Cheonan incident has left us in. But a resumption of formal talks would be too little punishment. Nobody in Washington is ready to sit down with North Korea as if nothing had happened.”

Beijing is proposing that as a first step toward a formal resumption of six-party talks, North Korea and the US hold bilateral talks. That, says Mr. Snyder, is “relatively unlikely” given that the last set of such talks, begun under the Bush administration, ended with Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear tests.

“That has made the Obama administration very reticent,” Snyder adds.

Only if North Korea shows signs that new talks might be more productive than past negotiations, and that it is ready to honor promises it made earlier, is Beijing going to be able to get everybody around the six-party table at the same time, suggests Professor Kang. “North Korea is going to have to do something to show they are moving the ball forward,” he says.

[Editor's note: Scott Snyder was incorrectly identified in an earlier version of this article. He is head of Center for US-Korea Policy at the Asia Foundation.]

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