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North Korea: Six-Way Korea Meeting Wraps Up With Promise Of More Talks

Talks on North Korea's nuclear program have ended without a breakthrough. Delegates from six countries met for three days in China's capital Beijing and agreed to meet again within two months, without setting an exact date.

Prague, 29 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- As expected, no breakthrough was announced at the end of six-way talks in Beijing today on North Korea's nuclear program.

But considering the low expectations at the outset, diplomats and observers say the mere fact that the meeting took place and that participants agreed to meet again can be called a success.

The talks, involving Russia, China, Japan, South Korea, the United States, and North Korea, were prompted by a string of announcements over the past few months by Pyongyang that it has restarted its nuclear weapons program and suspicion that it may indeed already possess one or two bombs. This week's meeting follows a set of three-way discussions between North Korean, Chinese, and U.S. representatives in Beijing in April.

At the end of today's gathering, Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Wang Yi announced what he termed a six-point "consensus" reached by the parties. Among the key points, participants agreed to resolve the nuclear issue peacefully, they agreed not to escalate tensions, and to meet again soon for more talks.

"All parties agreed to continue the six-way talks and to finalize the time of the next round of talks through diplomatic channels as soon as possible," he said.

Importantly, the parties also agreed to work for a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, while taking into account the security needs of North Korea.

This last point appears calculated to at least partially assuage Pyongyang's demands, although it falls short of the nonaggression pact from the United States that North Korea has been demanding as a partial condition to halting its nuclear program.

Patrick Koellner, an expert on Korea at the University of Hamburg's Institute for Asian Affairs, tells RFE/RL that in his opinion, this was as much as could be expected from the Beijing meeting.

"They are really talks. They're not negotiations. The aim here was to lay the groundwork for future negotiations which would then hopefully involve some sort of phased plan to deal with the nuclear issues, involving both concessions from the United States and North Korea and additional measures from the other countries participating in the talks."

Koellner says that in this regard, the six-way format of the talks has already proved to be a benefit. Washington's and Pyongyang's positions remain so antagonistic that it would have been almost impossible -- were it not for the other participants -- to include a formulation in the final communique acknowledging the legitimacy of Pyongyang's security concerns.

All observers agree that as rounds of talks gradually develop into genuine negotiations, both key actors -- Washington and Pyongyang -- will have to be ready to offer some concessions.

North Korea issued a long and strongly worded official statement following today's talks accusing the United States of failing to even consider any of Pyongyang's proposals. But among the angry words was also language that hinted at North Korea's willingness to compromise. In the statement, Pyongyang said it could further increase what it called its "nuclear deterrent" or, it said, it could "dismantle" its nuclear program if Washington abandoned what Pyongyang called a "hostile policy."

North Korea has become so practiced at playing with words to extract concessions that experts are still unsure of the exact extent of its nuclear capability, making negotiations all the more difficult. But most accept that even if North Korea does not yet possess an actual bomb, Pyongyang has the raw material and probably the skill to build one in a hurry.

Since North Korea does appear eager for an eventual deal, the issue in future negotiations, as Koellner explains, may hinge on devising a verification regime acceptable to both sides. And Washington may have to re-examine its position, says Koellner.

"The only thing we really know is that North Korea has sufficient plutonium to build nuclear weapons in a couple of months," Koellner said. "So there is this potential. I think that's enough to deal with the issue, really. The question then of course is, in the longer run, how can we actually verify that North Korea does away with its nuclear potential? And here the question is: will the United States be willing to accept that there can be no absolute proof in this respect?"

As Koellner notes, "The only way that you can really make sure that there are no nuclear weapons or no hidden development program is if you're actually there, in the country, if you're occupying it. Other than that, there's no 100 percent guarantee."

Since U.S. officials have repeatedly stated that Washington is not contemplating a military intervention into North Korea, one important question for the future is how willing will the administration of President George W. Bush be to make limited concessions to Pyongyang in exchange for a potential international inspection regime that may be less than 100-percent perfect.