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North Korea: Washington, Pyongyang, Beijing To Start Talks On Reducing Tensions

Beijing is due to play host this week to a first round of talks aiming at calming tensions on the Korean peninsula in the wake of North Korea's restarting of its nuclear program and unilateral withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Prague, 21 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- After six months of steadily increasing tensions on the North Korean peninsula, negotiators from China, the United States, and North Korea are due to sit down together in Beijing this week (22 April) to find a way out of the impasse.

At issue is how to persuade Pyongyang to renounce its nuclear ambitions and shut down for good a nuclear program that it reactivated last year in violation of a 1994 agreement.

The talks come after North Korea signaled a softening in its position 10 days ago, saying it might agree to multilateral talks on the issue instead of bilateral negotiations with the United States, as it had previously demanded.

Three parties -- the United States, China, and North Korea -- are due to participate in this initial round of talks. It is expected that South Korea, Japan, and possibly Russia might join at a later date. Japanese government spokesman Yasuo Fukuda welcomed the negotiation round as a "first step."

"Following a series of negotiations among many countries, there will be multilateral talks between the United States, North Korea, and China -- this is the first step. The government [of Japan] welcomes the talks as the first step in resolving issues concerning North Korea peacefully."

U.S. State Department Phil Reeker, speaking last week, confirmed that Washington would like to see Tokyo, Moscow, and Seoul eventually join the discussions.

"There's one thing that's absolutely clear, and that is that at whatever level the talks start and with whatever attendance in the beginning, it has to ultimately encompass the view and thoughts of all the neighbors in the region."

Negotiations are expected to be arduous and any progress is far from guaranteed. For a start, it remains unclear how far advanced North Korea is in its suspected nuclear weapons program.

North Korean officials alternate between dropping hints that they are preparing to manufacture nuclear weapons and denying that their nuclear program is being used for anything other than civilian use.

On 18 April, the North's Foreign Ministry issued a statement that caused widespread alarm, saying Pyongyang was "successfully reprocessing" thousands of spent fuel rods at its previously mothballed nuclear power plant. But today that statement was amended to say the North was "successfully going forward with reprocess work," implying the reprocessing had not yet started. There was no explanation given for the change.

U.S. officials believe North Korea could retrieve enough plutonium from those rods to make several nuclear bombs.

The CIA says it believes Pyongyang already possesses one or two bombs. But this has not been verified.

Experts are divided on whether North Korea's softer line on negotiations reflects a genuine desire for compromise on the nuclear issue or whether Pyongyang, convinced that nuclear weapons are the only thing that will prevent an eventual U.S. attack, is playing for time.

Patrick Koellner is an expert on Korea at the University of Hamburg's Institute for Asian Affairs. He says, "The jury's still out on whether North Korea is indeed willing to trade away, so to speak, its nuclear devices or whether it's really intent on pursuing its ambitions in this field."

Another question hangs over the role that China -- North Korea's main trading partner -- will be prepared to play in putting genuine pressure on Pyongyang. After agreeing to host the initial set of negotiations, China's ambassador to Seoul was quoted at the end of last week as saying his country "does not intend to mediate" in the talks, which he said principally concerned "two countries" -- meaning North Korea and the United States.

The United States has repeatedly indicated that it will not be maneuvered into engaging in bilateral talks with North Korea. If Chinese officials tried such a move, experts say negotiations would end before they even got started.