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North Korea: Pyongyang, Washington Set To Meet In Six-Way Talks In Beijing

After months of tension between North Korea and the United States, the issue of Pyongyang's nuclear program will finally be on the table tomorrow when six-way talks kick off in Beijing. In preparation for the negotiations, diplomats from the U.S., South Korea, and Japan are due to meet today. But as RFE/RL reports, analysts don't expect a breakthrough in Beijing.

Washington, 26 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. officials are expected to push North Korea to abandon its nuclear-weapons program when the two sides come face-to-face at six-party talks in Beijing tomorrow. But officials say they do not expect a breakthrough to emerge from the negotiations, which also include China, Japan, South Korea, and Russia.

Although the U.S. is unlikely to offer any specific inducements for North Korea to disarm, Washington has signaled that an eventual vow from Pyongyang to terminate its nuclear program could lead to an improvement in relations between the two countries.

Tension between the U.S. and Pyongyang has been high since North Korea acknowledged last October it had resumed its nuclear-arms program in violation of a 1994 agreement with Washington. Since last fall, Pyongyang has demanded direct talks and a nonaggression pact with Washington, but the U.S. has refused to reward what it calls North Korea's bad behavior and has insisted on treating the issue multilaterally.

The U.S. wants North Korea to abandon its nuclear program, reveal all its nuclear components, and allow aggressive inspections.

State Department spokesman Philip Reeker told a briefing that the U.S. delegation, led by Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, is intent on keeping the talks focused on the main issue. "The focus needs to be the end of North Korea's nuclear-weapons program," Reeker said. "You know our position on that -- that's what we're going into these talks to discuss."

North Korea agreed to take part in multilateral talks early this month after having participated in an initial three-way meeting last April in Beijing with China and the United States.

However, the State Department acknowledges that this week's talks will also offer an informal opportunity for the U.S. and North Korean officials to exchange a few direct words. "Obviously, when you are in a room and holding talks with six parties, there is opportunity to raise issues with any of your interlocutors across the table, across the room," Reeker said.

Kelly arrived in Beijing on Monday (25 August) evening, after the South Korean and Japanese negotiators. A South Korean official said in Beijing that Japan, the U.S., and Seoul would meet for a planning session this morning. Kelly yesterday expressed cautious optimism about tomorrow's talks.

"I am very happy to be back in Beijing," Kelly said. "We have worked for a long time, the Chinese friends have worked for a long time to have these multilateral talks. We'll be getting going on Wednesday morning and we are looking forward to a direct and fair exchange of views."

Pyongyang's delegation, headed by Deputy Foreign Minister Kim Yong Il, was set to arrive today.

Alexandre Mansourov is an expert on North Korea at Hawaii's Asian-Pacific Center for Security Studies. The Russian-born Mansourov told RFE/RL the talks this week are just a first step in what he expects to be a drawn-out process of negotiation. "I would call it a 'Beijing process,'" he said. "Hopefully, it will continue, and as time goes by we'll get to more substance and eventually there will be enough critical mass to reach some kind of outcome."

As for this week's talks, Mansourov said: "I believe that the best outcome from this particular round of the talks would be just an agreement to disagree and to set a date for the next round. But in general, I remain hopeful about the 'Beijing process' as a whole."

While Washington has ruled out a formal nonaggression pact, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has said the U.S. may be willing to provide some kind of written assurance that it has no intention to attack North Korea.

The U.S. has no diplomatic relations with North Korea. But a senior U.S. official told reporters today that normalization of ties is a possibility, if North Korea meets U.S. demands. The official added, "Most of us do see this as just really the beginning of a process and are not aiming to have specific accomplishments to post on the board."

However, the official did acknowledge that there is not a lot of time left to find a solution. North Korea is believed to already have one or two nuclear weapons and the capacity to produce several more in a few months.

Sang-Joo Kim is an analyst with the Institute for Korean-American Studies in Philadelphia. He said drawing out the process plays in favor of North Korea. "In the meantime, North Korea earns time," he said. "Remember, in terms of time frame, no matter what happens in the six-party [talks], North Korea is continuing its own project. No one can stop it from happening. So in due time, there's a good likelihood that North Korea will be declared a nuclear power."

In last-minute posturing, North Korea yesterday accused the United States of giving up on the talks before they had started, citing what it said was talk in Washington of taking the matter of Pyongyang's nuclear-weapons program before the UN Security Council.

There have also been other incidents indicating the emotions and tension surrounding the North Korean issue. Over the weekend, a North Korean ferry, making its first trip to Japan in seven months, was searched for nuclear or missile materials. Nothing was discovered, but the ship was being held in a Japanese port pending a series of safety upgrades.

And on 24 August, Pyongyang threatened to pull out of the World University Games after a brawl between North Korean reporters and human rights activists protesting the communist country's leader, Kim Jong Il. The scuffle set back hopes that the games would symbolize inter-Korean solidarity ahead of the talks in Beijing.

The fight, which lasted about 10 minutes, erupted as reporters from the North's state-run media tried to seize banners critical of Kim Jong Il from about 20 protesters outside the stadium. Protesters held pictures of starving North Korean children in hospitals. "Down with Kim Jong Il. Rescue our Northern brethren," one banner read.