By Tao Wenzhao
The United States and North Korea began landmark negotiations on Monday on normalizing relations after recent progress in the multi-party talks on the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue.
On February 13, the fifth round of the six-party talks concluded in Beijing with the adoption of a joint agreement, signaling a good beginning for the "action for action" stage of the process.
The joint document drew up an all-round plan for settling a series of issues, including the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, US-DPRK relations and DPRK-Japan ties.
All parties involved in these efforts had made their commitments to steps in the initial stage of the implementation of the "9/19 (2005) joint statement" and formed five working groups, which would start operation within 30 days. Right now, follow-up measures to implement the "2/13 joint document" are being put in motion one by one.
North Korea chief nuclear negotiator Kim Kye-gwan, the country's deputy foreign minister, began talks in New York Monday. He is discussing the formation of a working group with US Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill to start the first round of talks on normalizing bilateral relations. The first meeting is scheduled to continue through today.
US sources familiar with the process have said that lawyers were discussing the feasibility of removing the North Korea from Washington's list of countries that support terrorism, while the US government was expected to begin soon the process of removing the North Korea from the Trading With the Enemy Act (TEA).
The US government will then be able to unfreeze the North Korea's overseas assets. The two countries can then revive normal trade relations. In a few days, the US Treasury will inform Banco Delta Asia (BDA) in Macao of the result of its investigation of the North Korea's accounts and unfreeze them (or certain sums in them).
On January 23, North Korea formally invited International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei to visit Pyongyang. Mr ElBaradei, who sees it as "an important step toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula", is very likely to make the trip next week.
This is the first time North Korea has expressed its willingness to let international institutions inspect its nuclear facilities since it withdrew from the International Non-Proliferation Treaty in January 2003.
Meanwhile, North Korea and South Korea are holding another round of ministerial talks in Pyongyang. Earlier talks had broken down as a result of the North Korea's missile tests in July 2006.
The latest round of talks is focused on issues such as humanitarian aid by South Korea to North Korea, resumption of regular reunions of families separated during the Korean war, trial runs of two trans-border railways linking the two sides, and cooperation in developing light industry and energy sources.
South Korean government said last week that it would provide 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil to the north according to the "2/13 joint agreement" and related preparations were already under way.
Several factors contributed to the successful adoption of the "2/13 joint agreement" at the six-party talks and to the encouraging trend of development of the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue, but one stands out.
Both North Korea and the US have taken a relatively realistic, pragmatic and flexible stand, which is easier said than done. From the very beginning, North Korea insisted on holding bilateral talks with the US, while the US flatly ruled out that possibility.
When the six-party talks first started, then US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage mentioned the possibility of bilateral talks with North Korea at a Congressional hearing, which reportedly sent President George W. Bush into a rage.
The word "bilateral" thus became taboo in Washington's dictionary and the phrase "bilateral talks" sounded like a plague. During the first three rounds of the six-party talks, host China went out of its way to keep the US and North Korea delegations near each other. They were seated at the same table at banquets or left alone in a quiet corner of the Fangfei Garden inside the Diaoyutai State Guest House after a day's discussion.
The purpose of all these arrangements was to provide opportunities for the two sides to be in contact with each other. Even so, the US delegation still avoided the term "bilateral" and used such descriptions as "(the two sides) met face to face". Thanks to the rich cache of English expressions, the two countries were able to admit they had held bilateral talks without saying the forbidden words.
The US stand was relaxed somewhat soon afterwards, as the US agreed to conduct bilateral contacts with the North Korea within the framework of the six-party talks.
That was followed by a bigger change of attitude on the US part at the bilateral talks held in Berlin in January, where both sides expressed the wish to resolve their differences. That meeting laid the foundation for the adoption of the "2/13 joint agreement".
At the same time, North Korean side also took a pragmatic and flexible approach.
North Korea had refused to return to the six-party talks under US pressure since the emergence of the banking issue in September 2003. It changed its tone at the Northeast Asia Security Conference held in Tokyo in March 2006, when heads of all delegations to the six-party talks on the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue met.
North Korea representative Kim told US chief negotiator Hill that he would return to the negotiating table as soon as the US handed back the US$24 million in its frozen BDA accounts, but Hill insisted the frozen cash and denuclearization were separate issues.
The North Korea's participation in the six-party talks held in Beijing last December is an example of flexibility. Kim reminded other participants at that time that his delegation was there before the US agreed to unfreeze its BDA accounts. This time around, North Korea accepted the "2/13 joint agreement" in another display of pragmatism.
Looking back to earlier history, in 2005 after the six parties signed the key joint statement on September 19, they held the first meeting of the fifth round of the six-party talks in early November of 2005.
North Korea side took the opportunity to say it was time to discuss the issue of building light-water reactors for the North Korea as a show of sincerity on the US part. Such a demand was never mentioned again at that meeting.
This kind of standoff is understandable because, after more than five decades of no contact whatsoever, neither North Korea nor the United States had any reason to trust the other.
This kind of situation also builds up a vicious circle. The two sides remain suspicious of each other, questioning the other side's sincerity in resolving the dispute and questioning whether the other side will honor promises made. Each side would also try to get the other side to make the first move, thinking it might lose face if its first move was met with no response from the other.
Thus the wait for the other side to act first continued. There was also the worry that one side might be taken advantage of if it compromised more than the other, making it look gullible. Lack of mutual trust can make things more difficult than they already are and each step harder to take than the previous one toward resolving the dispute.
In a situation like this, it takes a lot of courage for either side to adopt a pragmatic and flexible approach and adjust its stand. It is appropriate to say that both the US and North Korea made the right choice to make the "2/13 joint agreement" a reality. They were both courageous enough to arrive at the win-win conclusion together.
The six-party talks have been able to go so far by accumulating consensus and mutual trust over the past four years.
The adoption of the "2/13 joint agreement" may very well turn the vicious cycle of mutual suspicion and distrust into a positive process of building consensus step by step while fostering mutual trust for the Korean nuclear issue to head for a satisfactory resolution.
This, of course, is not to say the process is going to be a breeze from now on, but we have reason to believe the ship can sail ahead now that the ice has been broken.
Tao Wenzhao is deputy director of the Institute of American Studies under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
(China Daily March 6, 2007)