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Still Hope to Settle Korean Nuclear Issue
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The curtain went down December 22 on the latest round of the six-party talks on the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue, which resumed after a 13-month recess.


In the intervening months, so many things had happened -- the US imposed financial sanctions on North Korea, North Korea test-fired missiles and carried out a nuclear test.


Looking back at the latest talks, one can draw the conclusion that there is still hope to settle the nuclear crisis, but it will be extremely difficult to achieve this goal.


The talks ended without making any breakthroughs and the stances of the two primary players on the issue -- the US and North Korea -- remain tough. This signifies that the road ahead is full of bumps.


At the closing ceremony, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wu Dawei read out the chairman's statement, saying that all parties involved had reiterated their common goal to make the Korean Peninsula denuclearized through dialogue and peaceful means and made clear they would fulfill the pledges they made in a joint communiqué on September 19, 2005, when the fourth round of six-party talks concluded.


The fact that the six-party negotiations reopened, with all parties involved still sticking to their previously made promises, is itself an accomplishment, taking into account that things have got all the more complicated during the 13-month recess. This is why people still have confidence in resolving the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue.


The chairman's statement also stated that all parties involved agreed to implement the September 19 joint communiqué phase by phase, based on the principle of "action to action."


Although this process of fulfilling the commitments in the joint communiqué by way of "action-to-action" would be extremely difficult, Christopher Hill, head of the US delegation, indicated that the six-party talks are still the best way to resolve the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue.


Kim Kye-gwan, chief North Korean negotiator, appreciated very much the Herculean efforts made by China to get the talks restarted. South Korea also expressed its gratitude to China.


Just two days after the September 19 joint communiqué was released, the US Treasury Department raised the financial question connected to North Korea and Macao-based Banco Delta Asia froze North Korea's account.


Though a mere US$24 million was subject to the monetary sanction, North Korea suffered a great deal given its limited financial windows to the outside world. Much of its international aid came via this channel and many of its monetary deals and transactions are conducted through this outlet.


Things, however, did not stop here. The US raised the monetary matter shortly after the September 19 joint communiqué was issued. In the eyes of North Korea, therefore, this was a clear signal of hostility against it.


North Korea has since insisted that it would not return to the negotiation table under the pressure of US monetary sanctions and maintained that removal of the financial sanctions constituted a precondition for North Korea to go back to the six-party negotiations.


Chief negotiators of the six parties happened to be present at an East Asian security conference in Tokyo in the spring of this year. Kim Kye-gwan told Christopher Hill that he would return to the talks once Hill gave him the US$24 million. Hill, however, answered that monetary matters were beyond the remit of the US State Department and the matter was up to the US Treasury. The latter, however, responded that this was not a monetary sanction but law enforcement.


The exchanges show clearly that North Korea links financial sanctions to the six-party talks but the US is trying to remove the sanctions from the negotiations.


The latest round of six-party negotiations was restarted because both North Korea and the US had made some concessions, showing a certain degree of flexibility. But Washington refused to discuss the financial sanctions in the six-party sessions, agreeing to US experts discussing the matter with North Korean representatives beyond the six-party negotiations. North Korea did not insist that removal of the sanctions be a precondition for it to return to the negotiations.


Following the talks, US and North Korean financial experts held two days of discussions on the monetary sanctions, one day at the US embassy in Beijing and the other day at the North Korean embassy. Though the talks ended without outcome, both parties agreed to continue the financial-sanction talks in New York in January next year.


Kim Kye-gwan told reporters at the conclusion of the latest round of talks that he could do nothing because the higher authorities in Pyongyang insisted that the central subject of the six-party talks not be discussed before the question of financial sanctions is settled.


Hill, however, accused North Korea of placing importance on minor issues, referring to the financial sanctions. But from the North Korean perspective, removal of the monetary sanctions would constitute a key turnaround from Washington in its hostility toward North Korea.


In the opinion of this author, North Korea will continue to stick to this position.


During the latest round of talks, the US delegation put forward a four-step plan of freezing, reporting, inspection and denuclearization.


In the first phase, North Korea is supposed to freeze its nuclear reactor in Yongbyon. In return, it expects a written commitment from the US that it will not attack North Korea.


In the second and third phases, North Korea should report its nuclear arsenal and facilities to the six-party talks and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Then, IAEA teams will be sent to North Korea for inspection. In return, the US will provide North Korea with food and economic aid.


In the fourth phase, North Korea is supposed to eventually give up its nuclear-weapons bidding and agree to be subjected to permanent IAEA monitoring. For this, the US will provide more economic aid.


North Korea reporting its nuclear program to the IAEA is what Washington cares most about. This is because freezing nuclear facilities is easy and, in fact, North Korea used to freeze its nuclear reactors in the past. But the problem is it can restart its nuclear facilities at any time.


"Reporting," however, is likely to be followed by inspection. In this sense, reporting its nuclear arsenal and facilities to the IAEA indicates that North Korea has made up its mind to give up its nuclear program altogether. This is the most difficult step to be taken.


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


(China Daily December 26, 2006)


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