Chinese Official's North Korea Trip Generates Hope for Six-party Talks
SEOUL (Yonhap) -- Chinese top official Wang Jiarui's recent trip to North Korea has generated optimism that the North may be mulling returning to mothballed six-nation talks. Wang's meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il on Feb. 8 in particular drew media speculation that the two communist allies have found common ground over when and how the North will return to the six-party talks that have been deadlocked since they were last held in December 2008.
During the meeting, North Korean leader Kim reiterated his nation's determination to denuclearize though it was unclear whether Kim indicated any clear intention to rejoin the stalled denuclearization talks. Kim may also visit China, as Beijing has reportedly extended an invitation through Wang, head of the international department of the Chinese Communist Party. Wang arrived in Pyongyang on Feb. 6 for a four-day visit.
Kim's comments on his commitment in principle to denuclearization efforts are similar to earlier statements he has made. The latest remarks are drawing attention, however, as Kim sent his chief nuclear negotiator to Beijing following the meeting held in the North's eastern city of Hamhung.
North Korea's chief nuclear envoy, Kim Kye-gwan, accompanied Wang on his return to Beijing giving rise to media speculation that the sides are discussing reopening the nuclear talks in return for China's economic aid.
On Feb. 9, the (North) Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported that Wang delivered a verbal personal message from Chinese President Hu Jintao to Kim and that Wang and Kim had "a cordial and friendly conversation." The report didn't describe the content of the message but added that Kim "expressed thanks for this and asked Wang to convey his regards to Hu Jintao."
Hours later, Xinhua News Agency reported that Kim Jong-il reiterated to Wang the North's "persistent stance to realize the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula." Xinhua said Kim stressed it was important for other nations in the six-party setting to be sincere and serious about resuming the talks. Xinhua said Wang delivered letter from Hu which the Chinese President wrote China was prepared to "make joint efforts with North Korea to maintain peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula."
Kim Kye-gwan, in his surprise trip to Beijing, is expected to hold discussions on the nuclear standoff with Chinese officials. Kim was accompanied by Ri Gun, the deputy nuclear negotiator for North Korea.
The exchange visits by Wang and Kim Kye-gwan are part of a flurry of diplomacy to help revive the multilateral nuclear talks, which have been on and off since they were launched in 2003.
But the Chinese news agency stopped short of saying whether the North's leader promised to rejoin the stalled six-nation talks on ending its nuclear weapons programs, which involve the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States. The talks have been deadlocked for more than a year.
Xinhua also said Chinese President Hu Jintao extended an invitation to the North's leader to visit Beijing.
Adding to the flurry of diplomacy to jumpstart the nuclear talks, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's special envoy, Lynn Pascoe, arrived in Pyongyang on Feb. 9 for a four-day trip in the U.N.'s first bilateral talks with the North since 2004. The nuclear dispute is expected to be on the agenda for his discussions with North Korean officials.
According to a brief report by Radio Pyongyang, monitored here, Pascoe and his attendants were greeted by the chief of the United Nations Development Program's office in North Korea after landing at a Pyongyang airport.
In Seoul, a government official said the brisk diplomatic activities involving North Korea bode well for the fate of the troubled six-way talks. "Those busy diplomatic efforts are a positive sign in international efforts to bring North Korea back to the six-party talks," the official told Yonhap News Agency, requesting anonymity. He added that the nuclear talks may be resumed at an early date, given the pace of diplomatic efforts.
North Korea withdrew from the nuclear talks in April last year in anger over a U.N. rebuke of its long-range rocket launch widely condemned as a test of its missile technology. The communist regime conducted its second nuclear test in May and a series of banned ballistic missile launches in the following months.
But since August last year, Pyongyang has tried to reach out to South Korea and the U.S. amid U.N. sanctions. The North now demands the lifting of sanctions as a condition for its return to the nuclear negotiations. The regime has also renewed its long-standing demand that the United States and other parties involved sign a peace treaty that will replace the 1953 armistice that ended the three-year Korean War.
Kurt Campbell, U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, just concluded a trip to Seoul and Tokyo to reconfirm that the three countries will not discuss easing U.N. sanctions on the North or a peace treaty to replace the Korean War armistice unless North Korea first returns to the six-party talks.
U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley on Feb. 5 praised China's effort to revive the nuclear talks. "The Chinese senior officials have regular discussions with North Korea," Crowley said. "We value that leadership by China."
North Korea has been sending confusing signals, recently firing artillery rounds along its maritime border with South Korea while proposing talks with South Korea for joint projects. On Feb. 8, the two sides held talks on ways to resume suspended projects for South Korean tourists to visit North Korean tourist sites, but the meeting ended without an agreement.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Feb. 7 the Obama administration will continue engaging North Korea, which she described as "a nuclear-armed country," calling for the North's return to the talks.
"Engagement has brought us a lot in the last year," Clinton told CNN. "When we said that we were willing to work with North Korea if they were serious about returning to the six-party talks and about denuclearizing in an irreversible way, they basically did not respond in the first instance."
Pyongyang is reportedly suffering acutely from an ongoing economic crisis and the stringent U.N. sanctions that have virtually disabled much of the North's overseas businesses. But there are still a number of barriers that need to be removed before the six nations can seek progress in denuclearizing the North.
Pyongyang, despite having told Washington that it understood the need to revive the multilateral discussions, maintains that the U.N. sanctions must first be lifted before it can return to the discussion table. The North also is calling for its negotiation partners to place priority on negotiating a peace treaty. The Armistice Agreement - the end product of the 1950-53 Korean War - is the source of its security concerns, according to Pyongyang.
Whether the North would agree on complete and irreversible denuclearization in exchange for the bundle of "comprehensive" economic incentives offered by Seoul and other members of the multilateral discussions also remains to be seen, experts noted. In Washington on Feb. 9, the U.S. called on North Korea to follow through on its promise to return to the six-party nuclear talks.
"North Korea is saying the right things, that the six-party process should resume, and that it remains committed to denuclearization," State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters through a teleconference. "But the right words must be followed by action. Words by themselves are not sufficient."
Crowley said the U.S. welcomes Kim Kye-gwan's trip to Beijing. "We absolutely support interaction between North Korean officials and our six-party partners," he said, adding he hoped Kim Kye-gwan "will hear the same message from the Chinese that he's heard from the United States."
The spokesman referred to the trip to Pyongyang by Stephen Bosworth, special representative for North Korea policy, in December, the first direct high-level contact for the Obama administration.
"We expect that will be the message that the Chinese deliver to Kim Kye-gwan while he's in Beijing, that North Korea should allow China to schedule the next six-party meeting, and North Korea should again commit itself to the obligations that it made previously," Crowley said.