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North Korea: Pyongyang Agrees To Multilateral Talks, Thanks Perhaps To Russian Diplomacy

The South Korean Foreign Ministry today confirmed that North Korea says it has agreed to six-nation talks to resolve the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula. The announcement represents a significant policy shift by Pyongyang, which has long demanded one-on-one negotiations with Washington. RFE/RL reports on the complex diplomacy -- much of it involving Russia -- that resulted in the dramatic announcement.

Washington, 1 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Both the White House and the U.S. State Department are welcoming the announcement that North Korea wants to take part in six-way talks to resolve the impasse over its nuclear-weapons program.

South Korea's Foreign Ministry says North Korea today formally told Seoul that it has agreed to the talks. That confirms an earlier report by the Russian Foreign Ministry.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told a briefing in Washington yesterday, "What I would say at this point is we're encouraged -- we're very encouraged -- by indications that North Korea is accepting our proposals for multilateral talks."

The talks will involve the two Koreas, the United States, China, Russia, and Japan. Boucher did not say where or when the talks might be held. And he appeared to be at pains to explain why such significant news had first come through Moscow, since Washington's primary partner on the North Korean issue has long been Beijing, where talks were held in April.

Pressed on that question by reporters, Boucher said yesterday's news was consistent with what U.S. officials, including President George W. Bush, had been hearing recently from Chinese officials. Bush spoke by phone yesterday with Chinese President Hu Jintao.

But analysts interviewed by RFE/RL paint a more complex picture of the diplomacy surrounding the nuclear standoff over North Korea, which U.S. officials say has been trying to parlay its nuclear weapons program into economic and security concessions from Washington.

Alexandre Mansourov is considered to be one of the top analysts of North Korean affairs in America. Russian-born, Mansourov is a professor at Hawaii's Asian-Pacific Center for Security Studies. He says that although it has been relatively ignored by U.S. officials and the media, which have played up the so-called "Chinese track," Russian diplomacy with Pyongyang has been playing a lead role recently.

In June, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he would gladly host any kind of talks between the United States and North Korea, and that he was willing to facilitate such a forum, whatever its format.

Mansourov says Putin and North Korean President Kim Jong Il have developed a fairly close relationship and notes that Kim has made train trips through Russia over the last couple of years. Mansourov says contacts have intensified in recent weeks between diplomats in both Moscow and Pyongyang.

"Putin and Kim Jong Il for three years already, they've had a special relationship -- very intimate. There was personal chemistry. So while the U.S. attention was devoted to the Chinese track, if you wish, Putin at the same time maintained very frequent correspondence with Kim Jong Il, in terms of personal letters going back and forth. It was not highlighted in the media, but it doesn't mean it didn't happen. And essentially Russia was pushing the same line -- of multilateral talks," Mansourov says.

Ironically, Mansourov says he believes North Korea has felt hostility from China, its primary benefactor. Washington has been trying to pressure Beijing to persuade Pyongyang to make concessions. Perhaps that's why, according to Mansourov, North Korea felt that April's three-way talks were more like "two against one."

"The reason why Kim Jong Il chose to turn to Russia, indicated Russia as one of his interlocutors, is because he feels that the Russian position is more congruent with his own interests and with his position, and he doesn't get the same kind of pressure from Russia as he seems to be receiving from the Chinese," Mansourov says.

Until yesterday, North Korea had demanded one-on-one talks with Washington, which says it refuses to be "blackmailed" by Pyongyang.

Last October, North Korea revealed it has pursued nuclear weapons despite signing an agreement with Washington in 1994 not to do so.

Since then, the standoff has grown tense. Washington has refused to budge in the face of North Korean threats that it is processing uranium to add to the one or two nuclear weapons that U.S. intelligence officials believe Pyongyang already possesses.

Yesterday in Seoul, John Bolton, the U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and security, said the days of "Kim Jong Il's blackmail" are over and that Pyongyang's pursuit of nuclear weapons would only worsen its security situation.

"While he [Kim Jong Il] lives like royalty in Pyongyang, he keeps hundreds of thousands of his people locked in prison camps with millions more mired in abject poverty. For many in North Korea, life is a hellish nightmare," Bolton added.

Some analysts say such tough U.S. rhetoric and pressure will in the end force North Korea to make concessions.

But Sang-Joo Kim of the Institute for Korean-American Studies in Philadelphia is not one of them. Arguing in a similar vein to Mansourov, Kim says: "I think the North Koreans have their own agenda. I doubt the North Korean ambassador to Russia was responding to John Bolton's statement. North Korea is trying to pursue its own agenda, and a good chance is that Putin may have offered something that Kim Jong Il couldn't resist -- guaranteeing certain things: security, non-aggression, and no regime change."

Kim paints a complex picture of diplomacy on the Korean crisis, which he calls "the big boys playing cards." On the one hand, he says, Pyongyang is desperate to get some kind of assurance of its security before Bush's possible re-election next year. Kim says that's because, in Pyongyang's eyes, Bush would be more liable to attack North Korea -- which he has labeled as part of an "axis of evil" -- when he has "nothing to lose" in his second term, after which he cannot seek re-election.

According to Kim, North Korea's security will obviously not be ensured by South Korea or Japan, or even China, which is showing itself more and more intolerant of Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions. Only Russia could provide such assurances, the Korean-born analyst says.

Meanwhile, Kim adds that South Korea wants to ensure somebody keeps Bush's "militarism" in check. That somebody, Kim says, is Putin. In turn, Kim believes Russia has an incentive in trying to bring the North around. He says Moscow has a $600 million debt with Seoul and is keen to see it forgiven.

Finally, Kim says the Bush administration may actually be eager to give North Korea what it has long rejected: a non-aggression pact. In this, he suggests that Putin, with close ties to Bush, may be acting as a go-between.

"Remember, Washington's major agenda is Mr. Bush's re-election. For his re-election, they will say anything, they will do anything. So what is that? Keeping peace on the Korean peninsula, and even the appearance of the status quo. And in a sense, not North Korea, rather Washington, may have to give in, just for the purpose of re-election," he says.

The multilateral talks would be the first attended by the United States and North Korea since they met with China in Beijing in April. A senior U.S. official who asked not to be identified told Reuters that Beijing is a possible venue for the talks, which could take place in or before September.