NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 33 (December 11, 2008) |
*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK
Despite Hopes for Progress, Nuclear Talks Disintegrate
SEOUL (Yonhap) -- The latest round of six-party talks this week showed little sign of bearing fruit as negotiators from the U.S. and its allies failed to coax North Korea into agreeing on sampling and other scientific measures necessary to inspect its nuclear facilities.
Dimming prospects for any new deal, the six-nation talks -- which opened in Beijing on Dec. 8 -- will likely go into recess until the U.S. President-elect Barack Obama is sworn in on Jan. 20 unless there is a dramatic breakthrough, diplomatic observers predict.
Host China called a plenary session at 9 a.m. (Beijing time) on Dec. 11, the fourth day of the talks, at Daioyutai State Guest House, which may conclude negotiations.
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi plans to meet with top nuclear envoys from North Korea and its five dialogue partners one hour later. The foreign minister usually holds a group meeting with the delegates before ending a six-way session.
Pyongyang has refused to allow international inspectors to take samples from soil and waste at its nuclear sites for analysis at foreign laboratories, according to chief South Korean nuclear envoy Kim Sook.
This week's six-nation talks are likely the last opportunity the Bush administration will have to save a troubled aid-for-denuclearization deal signed in 2007.
"We didn't make any progress today," top U.S. nuclear negotiator Christopher Hill told reporters after the third-day of marathon negotiations centered on a Chinese-issued draft of a verification protocol. "We've had considerable discussions about the issues, and I can't say there were any breakthroughs."
South Korea's Kim Sook echoed Hill's remarks and said he doubted the possibility of an agreement.
North Korea, which conducted an underground nuclear test in 2006, reiterated its claim that it is a nuclear state during the talks, although the international community does not recognize it as such.
Kim said Pyongyang also refused to move forward from the agreement made in the previous round of talks held in July, in which it agreed to grant inspectors access to "facilities, review of documents, interviews with technical personnel and other measures unanimously agreed upon among the six parties."
The verification protocol now being planned is to provide more detailed guidelines on which inspection measures will be used. The U.S. and its allies emphasize that "sampling and other forensic activities" are crucial to thorough verification, in addition to the other three agreed-upon measures.
A stalemate on the verification issue will affect negotiations on the other main agenda items, which include a timetable for completing the North's disabling of its Yongbyon nuclear reactor and the delivery of energy aid by its dialogue partners.
With the six-way talks deadlocked, the United States is hinting it may put North Korea back on its terror blacklist. On Dec. 10, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told a daily news briefing that the U.S. action cannot be ruled out.
"Look, I guess, I suppose, these things are always possible," McCormack said when asked if the U.S. is considering listing the North again.
The U.S. delisted the North in October, saying Pyongyang agreed to the sampling during a visit by Christopher Hill in early October. But Kim Kye-gwan, the North's chief nuclear envoy, has refused to guarantee the sampling in writing, citing what he called a hostile U.S. policy toward North Korea.
In Beijing, Kim refuted the U.S. claim that the two sides have a common understanding on the sampling issue. Kim's remarks buttressed the views of pessimists that the North, in its attempt to get energy aid in the on-and-off denuclearization process, has no intention of dealing further with the outgoing Bush administration.
"We know what was agreed upon. We have it on paper," McCormack said. "We have a solid understanding of it. Other countries within the six-party talks share that understanding." The spokesman said his government will "go down another pathway" if the North fails to agree on sampling, apparently referring to putting the North back on the terrorism list.
North Korea remains one of the most heavily sanctioned nations in the world by the U.S. and international community.
During the latest round of talks, the six nations also debated over how to verify the North's suspected uranium enrichment and nuclear proliferation activities, and the role of International Atomic Energy Agency in inspection, according to sources.
In the October deal, the U.S. and North Korea agreed to permit international inspectors to access the North's undeclared sites under "mutual consent." The participating nations have a consensus that they will embark on the verification process immediately after the second phase of denuclearization is completed, sources said.
On the first day of the latest round of talks, the six nations agreed to a timetable that will complete the second phase of the denuclearization process by March 2009, according to Seoul's chief envoy Kim Sook. He said that Seoul will link the verification issue to economic and energy incentives other nations would grant to Pyongyang under a 2007 pact.
The Seoul delegate hinted that South Korea and other member nations may withhold the provision of the remaining 450,000 tons of heavy oil if Pyongyang refuses to accept key elements of the verification protocol.
Under the 2007 pact, Pyongyang agreed to disable facilities at its plutonium-producing Yongbyon nuclear complex and declare all of its atomic activities in the second phase of the process. In return, it was to be given 1 million tons of fuel oil or equivalent energy aid. About half has been delivered.
Chief U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill on Dec. 9 confirmed that aid provision would require an agreement on the verification issue, an idea shared by South Korea and Japan.
North Korea immediately protested the move, claiming it contravenes previous six-nation deal. "No six-nation agreements stipulate the verification of North Korea's nuclear declaration list as preconditions to the economic compensation," Choson Sinbo, a pro-North Korea newspaper published in Japan, said on Dec. 9.
"The remaining actions under the six-party agreements are (the North's) disablement and (other member countries') economic compensation," said the paper, which usually represents the policy of the communist North. It argued that the U.S. demand to include sampling in the verification protocol "runs counter to the principle of action for action."
As the U.S. and its allies place more emphasis on the verification issue, it has becoming increasingly clear that the North has a different agenda. "This round of talks is a gathering aimed at finalizing the implementation of the Oct. 3 agreement that stipulates the action plan for the second phase of (the three-tier) denuclearization process," the Choson Sinbo said Dec. 8.
"The core agenda item at the talks is the complete delivery of economic assistance by the five parties," said the newspaper, which is seen as representing the North's official stance.
Prior to the talks, North Korea said it would ignore Japan during the negotiations. Tokyo has refused to provide its share of promised energy to Pyongyang citing the unresolved abductions of its citizens by North Korea.
The warning came days before the denuclearization talks were set to begin in Beijing.
North Korea returned five Japanese abductees in 2002, soon after an unprecedented summit between the leaders of the two countries, but Japan claims several more abductees are still alive in North Korea. The North says they are dead.
"We will neither treat Japan as a party to the talks nor deal with it even if it impudently appears in the conference room," a spokesman for North Korea's Foreign Ministry was quoted as saying by the North's official Korean Central News Agency.
"It is only Japan out of those parties that has not done anything to fulfill its commitment, and is still refusing to do so," the spokesman said.