Prague, 1 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- In the aftermath of the latest round of six-party talks on North Korea, it's difficult to gauge what, if anything, was accomplished.
The six-party forum -- involving North and South Korea, the U.S., China, Russia and Japan -- is aimed at ending North Korea's suspected nuclear-weapons program.
In the words of U.S. officials, the three days of talks in Beijing that ended on 28 February were "highly successful."
The talks were neither an unqualified success nor an unmitigated failure.
At the other end of the spectrum, North Korea indicated the talks were a waste of time. A North Korean television announcer conveyed Pyongyang's official line by saying, "The attitude of the U.S. side toward the talks increased our disappointment. The U.S. did not hesitate to say it was unwilling to negotiate with [North Korea] -- far from showing any sincere intention to settle the issue."
Adam Ward, a senior fellow for Asia at London's International Institute for Strategic Studies, says the reality lies somewhere in between. The talks, he says, were neither an unqualified success nor an unmitigated failure.
"There wasn't any breakthrough, but there wasn't a breakdown either," he said. "There were a couple of positive elements to the talks over the weekend. The first, of course, is that [the parties] agreed to meet again in about four months’ time -- around June. The second is that there seems to have been agreement to set up some working groups of technical experts and negotiators to look at the various tricky issues that currently divide the various parties."
Ward says the idea to set up working groups -- small teams that would meet frequently and focus on specific tasks -- may be a genuine step forward that could lead to better communication and less risk of misunderstanding. The first working group is to be sponsored by South Korea later this month.
"Up until now you've had a situation in which the six parties have met in these enormous plenary sessions where it's actually very cumbersome and very difficult to have a back-and-forth discussion and negotiation. Essentially, people have been setting out basic positions, making maximalist demands, in a room [with] dozens and dozens of people in it -- [the process is] very cumbersome."
The first round of multilateral talks, six months ago, ended in a deadlock. North Korea said it would not dismantle what it called its "nuclear deterrent" until the U.S. first lifted sanctions and signed a nonaggression pact. The U.S., for its part, has said that North Korea would not receive any aid or a security pledge until it first disarmed.
There's been some tinkering with the basic positions since then, but this is pretty much where the sides still stand. Expectations of major progress this past week were not high. Ward says, however, the two major parties -- North Korea and the U.S. -- both have strong incentives to keep things moving forward.
"All of the parties involved in these talks really want to avoid the risks and complications of a breakdown. As far as the North Koreans are concerned, they may not be entirely happy with the pace at which things are progressing, but they need to make sure that they are at least seen as embracing a fair, diplomatic, and honest approach if they are to maintain the support of some honest brokers like China."
Ward says the U.S., similarly, wants to avoid a major disruption in the talks ahead of presidential elections in November, when U.S. President George W. Bush is expected to face strong opposition in the race for the presidency.
It's unclear whether North Korea actually has a usable nuclear weapon. Some intelligence experts say the country could already have one to three nuclear devices. Others say they doubt the North Korean effort is that far advanced.
Ward concedes that no one outside of Pyongyang actually knows for sure. He says intelligence can only gauge a country's stated intentions and its access to nuclear materials. North Korea fails both tests.
"Ultimately, our intelligence isn't good enough, but what we can say is that it is the assessment of most intelligence agencies in the West that it is certainly plausible that North Korea has enough material to fabricate a nuclear weapon. The question of whether it has already taken the step of fabrication is something that we just don't know about."
The U.S. says that North Korea in 2002 admitted to having a nuclear-enrichment program -- seen as a clear sign of an advanced nuclear program. Pyongyang has since denied the claim -- a line it stuck to at this latest round of talks.
The North Korean position was undermined earlier this year when a Pakistani nuclear scientist admitted that his country in the past had sold such enrichment equipment to North Korea. Pyongyang denies this, but the admission by Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan gave the six-party talks a renewed sense of urgency.