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UN: Security Council Talks On North Korea Expected To Yield Little Action

  • Robert McMahon

The UN Security Council today holds closed-door talks on North Korea's nuclear program, three months after Pyongyang declared its withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The United States has been seeking a council statement condemning the North Korean moves, but none is expected. China, in particular, opposes strong action by the council, which it believes could lead to an escalation of the crisis. It is promoting U.S. bilateral talks with North Korea instead.

United Nations, 9 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The UN Security Council today holds its first formal discussion on North Korea's nuclear program, one day before the country's announced withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is to become official.

But the Council discussions appear to be increasingly secondary to what experts say is likely the only way the crisis can be resolved -- direct talks between U.S. and North Korean officials.

Representatives of the five permanent Security Council members earlier this week failed to agree on a consensus statement that would have condemned North Korea for the suspected revival of its nuclear program.

China protests such a statement, stressing that it could aggravate the situation. It prefers that the focus be on bilateral negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington. Russia has taken a similar position. France and Britain had backed adoption of a strong statement on North Korea.

Maurice Strong, an adviser to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on North Korea, indicated that a council statement could escalate what he called the "confrontational nature" of the crisis.

He told reporters yesterday that a solution was still achievable if the two sides could agree on the terms for talks: "There is no question that at some stage even the Security Council cannot obviate the need for negotiations, and both parties have said they intend to negotiate. It's a question of the timing and the modalities."

Strong has held high-level discussions with both U.S. and North Korean officials in recent months. He said both sides realize the need to hold talks and that there are bilateral and multilateral aspects to their talks.

North Korea acceded to the NPT in 1985. That required it to agree on safeguards with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the body responsible for verifying compliance with the treaty.

But North Korea evicted inspectors in December -- amid U.S. charges that it had restarted its nuclear weapons program -- and the agency followed by referring the matter to the Security Council. The council has the power to enforce sanctions against North Korea, a step the Pyongyang regime said would be an act of war.

North Korean officials are calling for the United States to sign a nonaggression pact. Washington is willing to talk to North Korea, but has said it would make no further concessions.

Washington's move to spur Security Council action on North Korea is proper, says Sung-Yoon Lee, a professor of international politics at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

Lee tells RFE/RL he does not expect much from today's meeting, but that it was the right step to bring the issue before an international forum. At the same time, Lee says, he believes the administration of George W. Bush is "bracing itself" to grant concessions to North Korea: "The presumption under which the Bush administration is operating is that it's practically near-impossible to persuade North Korea to dismantle its nuclear program when we consider what it means to this failed, moribund society."

The North Korean leadership's sense of threat appears to have been heightened by the launch of the U.S.-led military campaign in Iraq three weeks ago. One year ago, Bush listed Iraq, North Korea, and Iran as members of an "axis of evil" that threatened security. Months later, his administration announced a new preemptive strike policy against hostile states.

UN envoy Strong was in North Korea when the coalition strikes against Iraq began. He said North Korean officials told him this confirmed their fears about the intent of U.S. preemptive strike policy: "They confirmed the belief, that they seemed to have very strongly, that they are the next on the list. They certainly feel that the threat is real. The United States insists it is not."

But the Fletcher School's Lee dismisses the notion that Bush administration policy provoked Pyongyang to violate its nuclear disarmament obligations.

Lee says it is known that North Korea has been trying to build a clandestine uranium program since the mid-1990s, in violation of the 1994 Agreed Framework. Under that agreement, North Korea stopped work at a nuclear complex capable of producing weapons-grade material in exchange for fuel oil and help in building safe nuclear reactors.

Lee tells RFE/RL: "The prevalent notion that Bush's rhetoric, the 'axis of evil,' has been detrimental in North Korean-U.S. relations. I think that's a misperception. Now, has that helped the situation? No. The North Koreans have reason to be afraid and they do indeed fear the possibility of a U.S.-led attack, but that's not to say that the North Koreans all of a sudden since the January 2002 ['axis of evil'] speech tried to expedite their nuclear program. That is a misconception."

Lee described today's Security Council meeting as one step in a "long, elaborate, tortuous web of steps" the U.S. needs to take to reach its goal of preventing nuclear proliferation in North Korea.