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North Korea: Three-Way Talks End With Contradictory Signals

  • Jeremy Bransten

The United States, China, and North Korea ended three days of talks in Beijing today amid tensions over North Korea's suspected development of nuclear weapons. China's Foreign Ministry said negotiators from all three governments consider the discussions "a good beginning," but U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was less enthusiastic, saying Washington had made it clear to Pyongyang that it will not bow to threats.

Prague, 25 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Speaking at the end of three days of talks today involving U.S., Chinese, and North Korean negotiators on halting Pyongyang's suspected nuclear program, host nation China put a positive spin on the discussions.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao told reporters in Beijing that the participants had all agreed their first direct discussions in six months were a good start. Liu said diplomats from the three countries would maintain diplomatic contacts aimed at continuing discussions.

"All the parties demonstrated their desire for a peaceful settlement of the issue. All the parties agreed to further study the positions of other sides and liaise through diplomatic channels on furthering the Beijing talks."

But the Chinese announcement was overshadowed by earlier, less-positive characterizations from the U.S. side as well as unconfirmed reports that North Korea had used the talks to announce that it already possesses nuclear weapons.

According to Japanese officials, the North Korean side told the Americans during negotiations yesterday that Pyongyang had already developed nuclear weapons and was willing to prove it.

This alleged revelation was not officially confirmed or even commented on by either side, but U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's harshly worded statement from yesterday could be interpreted as a reply:

"They (North Korean delegates) should not leave this series of discussions that have been held in Beijing with the slightest impression that the United States and its partners and the nations in the region will be intimidated by bellicose statements or by threats or actions that they think might get them more attention or might force us to make a concession that we would not otherwise make."

Nevertheless, it appears too early to characterize the outcome of these negotiations. As usual, Pyongyang issued contradictory signals. Despite its apparent boast about its nuclear capability, Pyongyang also said it had advanced a "bold proposal" at the talks, although it did not give details. And Powell, despite his tough language, stressed Washington's desire to reach a peaceful resolution with Pyongyang.

It all adds up to a good dose of confusion. To make sense of the talks -- what each side tried to achieve -- and where negotiations, if any, are likely to head in the future, RFE/RL spoke to Germany-based Korea analyst Sebastian Harnisch, at the University of Trier's Center for East Asian Studies.

Harnisch says Pyongyang's negotiators had two main goals. The first was to repeat and reinforce its message to the United States that a military attack would be suicidal.

"Even if the regime does not have the bomb right now, its [alleged] statement yesterday will most likely convince most countries in the region and the United States as well that they should act as if they had the bomb," Harnisch said. "And looking back at the North Korean track record over the past few months, I would argue that they have been trying to hedge against a potent military threat from the U.S., as they view it. They have stepped up their military preparation for an anticipated attack by the U.S., by signaling their military capabilities."

Pyongyang's second main goal -- perhaps contradictory -- was to portray itself as the "good guy" in these negotiations, to try to win over regional public opinion -- hence its announcement of an unspecified "bold proposal."

Harnisch said: "It's very hard to tell right now what this 'bold' approach is about. It may well be another move by the North Koreans to try to convince other regional countries as well as the world community that they are willing to engage in these talks and that the U.S. is not willing to do it and on the contrary, seeking to break up the talks."

The United States, for its part, also appears to be aiming at the "hearts and minds" of North Korea's neighbors, according to Harnisch.

"When it comes to the agenda of the U.S. at these talks, certainly they wanted to present their position to North Korea and show that they have very strong views about the nuclear program," he said. "At the same time, I think the U.S. engaged in these talks because they wanted to show to their reluctant allies in the region that North Korea is very hard to deal with and that the U.S. and its allies may well have to go forward with a more sanction-based, a more isolationist strategy towards the North."

Harnisch says it is too early to evaluate how each side fared precisely because so much now hinges on the position that North Korea's neighbors adopt. The United States, if faced with a North Korean regime determined to pursue a nuclear weapons program, may seek to impose a total embargo or naval blockade against Pyongyang. But such a move could not be achieved without the express cooperation of Japan, China, South Korea, and Russia.

Conversely, Pyongyang may believe it has backed the U.S. into a corner for the moment, but a recent, temporary cutoff of fuel from China coupled with a warning from Russia that Moscow will reevaluate its position if Pyongyang goes nuclear, are signals that there are limits to the patience of North Korea's backers.

As both sides in this standoff continue to maneuver, Harnisch says the next important moment may come when South Korea President Roh Moo-hyun visits Washington in mid-May for talks with U.S. President George W. Bush.

One thing is clear, according to the experts. Whether Pyongyang already has a nuclear bomb for its perceived defense needs does not matter as much as whether it goes on, in the months ahead, to build a stockpile that could then be exported to third countries or potential terrorist organizations. This is the big question and evaluating this threat remains a difficult task.