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Six-Party Talks Now at Action-for-Action Stage
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By Tao Wenzhao

The curtain went down on the fifth round of the six-party talks addressing the Korean Peninsula nuclear crisis on Tuesday, amid cautious applause from the international community.

During the negotiations, the six nations North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the United States discussed implementing the principles of the joint statement issued at the end of the six-party negotiations on September 19, 2005. Extensive consensus has been reached on what this involves.

While the September 2005 talks signaled the start of the pledge-for-pledge stage, the latest round marks the beginning of the action-for-action phase.

The joint agreement yielded by the latest six-party talks requires North Korea to take actions to carry out the 2005 joint statement.

Two actions are keys.

First, North Korea will shut down and seal the Yongbyon nuclear facilities within 60 days and allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to return to North Korea for supervision and verification of the shut-down.
Second, North Korea will discuss with the other parties a list of all its nuclear programs as described in Tuesday's joint statement.

In return North Korea will receive an initial 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil or the equivalent in economic and humanitarian aid.

There was wide speculation before the opening of the talks that North Korea would suggest freezing its nuclear facilities in Yongbyon. Under Secretary of State Christopher Hill, the top US negotiator, however, made it clear that the United States was not interested in freezing the nuclear facilities because the frozen installations could be re-activated, as North Korea has done in the past.

But this time, North Korea pledges to "shut down and seal" the nuclear installations, much more clear-cut and forceful than mere freezing.

In addition, North Korea has made the commitment to discuss its nuclear programs with the other parties. This is tantamount to laying bare all its nuclear plans to the international community. North Korea would not make the pledge if it had not decided to eventually abandon its nuclear card.

These pledges indicate that North Korea has taken a giant step towards abandoning its bid for a nuclear arsenal.

During the six-party talks this past December, Hill put forward a four-step plan, with the four steps involving freezing, discussing, examination and abandonment. Now North Korea is set to take the first three steps, signifying its move toward eventually giving up its nuclear plans.

Equally significant, the United States will take a string of actions. Two are of major importance:

First, the US will start bilateral negotiations with North Korea on developing diplomatic ties leading to the eventual exchange of ambassadors. Second, the US will start the process to eventually remove North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism and terminate the application of the Act of Trading With the Enemy to North Korea.

Vice-Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan, North Korea head negotiator, said before the talks that his country was ready to take solid actions. But what kind of steps North Korea would take depended on whether the United States would drop its hostility toward North Korea.

The talks showed Washington's readiness to move forward.

The six parties also agreed to set up five working teams to implement the announced measures. And for the first time since the talks began, before ending the session, the negotiators set a date for the next talks. The sixth round of six-party talks will be convened on March 19 to study the actions to be taken in the next phase.

All this signifies the launch of the action-for-action stage, which marks a breakthrough in making the Korean Peninsula nuclear free through peaceful means. It also brings a ray of hope for peace and stability in Northeast Asia.

The six-party talks have witnessed progress and frustration since their start in 2003. Why did the US and North Korea demonstrate flexibility and pragmatism this time?

A host of factors were in play.

First, in the wake of North Korea nuclear test last October, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1718 denouncing the test and imposing sanctions on North Korea.

The message was crystal clear: The international community is opposed to North Korea's bid for nuclear weapons and North Korea must deal with world opinion.

Second, North Korea's overall security and its economy deteriorated following the missile test firings last July and the nuclear test in October. Conditions could continue to worsen if North Korea doesn't change course.

Moreover, South Korea President Roh Moo-hyun's North Korea policy is coming under increasing fire from opposition parties in the wake of the missile and nuclear tests. If the opposition parties win the upcoming December elections, Roh's North Korea policy could be reversed. The development zone in North Korea's Kaesong, which enjoys heavy South Korea investment, could be abandoned.

Worse still, no South Korea companies will make investments in North Korea and the tour packages bringing South Koreans to North Korea would come to a halt. As a result, North Korea would lose its primary source of hard currency. This would deal a major blow to its economy, which is already in the doldrums.

Third, the Bush administration is eager to stage a diplomatic coup to improve its image, which is very much marred by the Iraq War. Moreover, Washington has in its hands the hot potato of Iran.

In addition, breakthroughs made on the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue may have some favorable influence on the handling of Iran's nuclear program.

These were the considerations behind the US flexibility and pragmatism.

It is encouraging that the six-party talks have taken a solid step forward. But there is still a long way to go.

"Shutting down and sealing" is not abandonment of a nuclear bid. In addition, the mistrust between Pyongyang and Washington, which stems from more than five decades of confrontation and hostility, cannot be redressed overnight. Any belief that defusing the Korean Peninsula nuclear crisis will be smooth sailing is out of touch with reality.

But the negotiators and the world have cause for hope. The talks' breakthrough helps to reinforce confidence that future difficulties can be overcome peacefully.

The author is a researcher with the Institute for American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

(China Daily February 15, 2007)

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