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North Korea: Beijing, Seoul Seen As Key To Pyongyang Nuclear Talks

For the United States to be successful in getting North Korea to roll back its nuclear weapons program, analysts say, it will need special help from China and South Korea. But at a time when Pyongyang is signaling possible readiness to return to stalled six-party talks, there are concerns whether Washington's relationships with Beijing and Seoul are solid enough to make negotiations work. Observers see this week’s summit between the U.S. and South Korean presidents as a chance to strengthen that front.

Washington, 9 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The meeting in Washington on 10 June between the South Korean and U.S. presidents comes at a time when many are hoping multiparty talks on North Korea's nuclear program will resume.

The meeting between Roh Moo-hyun and George W. Bush also offers an opportunity for the sides to mend bilateral ties.

South Korea’s National Security Council issued a statement in early June saying the one-day summit will emphasize the strength of the 50-year alliance between Seoul and Washington. It said the two leaders would coordinate steps to resolve what it called the "serious threat to peace" posed by the North's atomic ambitions.

Mitchell Reiss was the State Department’s director of policy planning from July 2003 until early 2005, and has long experience in dealing with the North Korean nuclear issue. He told RFE/RL Washington will be looking for gestures of support from Roh.

“He’s [Roh] made some statements about South Korea playing a balancing role in the region that some interpreted is a distancing of South Korea from the United States and from the alliance," Reiss said. "So there’s some fence-mending that needs to be done by President Roh on this trip, in addition to the North Korea issue.”

Seoul is a member of the six-party talks on North Korea, which also include China, Russia, and Japan, as well as the United States.
Beijing and Seoul both fear repercussions, and are opposed to economic sanctions or other tough steps aimed at pressing Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons. Both countries have urged the United States to be flexible and patient.

Analysts see South Korea and China as key because they have the most leverage on North Korea in terms of food and energy assistance and contacts with the outside world.

But Beijing and Seoul both fear repercussions, and are opposed to economic sanctions or other tough steps aimed at pressing Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons. Both countries have urged the United States to be flexible and patient.

U.S. experts believe North Korea has produced enough plutonium for at least six nuclear bombs and there is concern that North Korea could transfer nuclear material to other countries or terrorist groups.

The Bush administration in early June reiterated its commitment to diplomacy but said a referral to the UN Security Council for action must be an option if North Korea continues to pursue its nuclear program.

Beijing and Seoul oppose such a referral, which Pyongyang has said would be tantamount to a declaration of war.

Reiss said China and South Korea don’t appear to share Washington’s sense of urgency about the issue.

“None of this is easy, none of this is obvious," Reiss said. "It takes a lot of persistence. It takes a lot of patience. The problem has been that, during the last three years, North Korea has been able to increase its nuclear capabilities while we are either negotiating or trying to negotiate with it. So the danger increases. The United States feels that [danger], I think, more acutely than the Chinese and the South Koreans do, and that really is part of the problem right now.”

Some analysts say divisions within the Bush administration over policy on North Korea have also contributed to diplomatic delays.

Michele Flournoy was a top defense department official in the administration of former U.S. President Bill Clinton, and is now an expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a private U.S. think tank.

Flournoy told RFE/RL that if talks resume, Bush administration officials need to be clear about the incentives North Korea would get if it stopped its nuclear program.

She said the United States and other members of the six-party talks must maintain a united front in order to prevent North Korea from capitalizing on differences.

"The U.S. is the key player in the sense that the North Koreans will ultimately base their calculus primarily on what they believe the U.S. will do," Flournoy said. "But the South Koreans and Chinese are key players in terms of enabling the U.S. to be credible. We cannot be effective on either the 'stick' side or the 'carrot' side by ourselves.”

North Korea, considered one of the world’s most repressive states, has called for U.S. assurances to promise not to attack. It has said it would freeze its nuclear program if provided economic incentives.