Asia-Pacific, Headlines, North America, Nuclear Energy - Nuclear Weapons, Peace

POLITICS: South Sceptical of North Korean Assurances

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Jul 26 2007 (IPS) - When the six-party talks on the denuclearisation of North Korea ended last week, there was plenty of scepticism in neighbouring South Korea: to what extent can the reneging North be trusted to keep its pledges and promises in the future?

The talks in Beijing – involving Japan, China, the United States, Russia and the two Koreas – failed to set a firm deadline on “disabling” Pyongyang’s nuclear facilities because of continued demands for political and economic concessions.

As the English-language daily Korea Times predicted in its editorial, days before the talks, “the ongoing negotiations might face some hurdles, if not serious, as North Korea is expected to ask for more concessions, including more economic aid and diplomatic rewards from the U.S., South Korea and other countries.”

North Korea’s demands include its removal from the U.S. State Department’s list of countries “sponsoring terrorism” and the establishment of diplomatic relations with the United States.

At a press conference in Washington Monday, Christopher R. Hill, head of the U.S. delegation, told reporters: “What we agreed to do with them was to begin the discussion we began in New York when we had our first working group meeting.”

“And we discussed some of the reasons they’re on the list (of terrorist states) in the first place. And they discussed those issues and I would look forward to having further discussions on that,” said Hill, who is also assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.

Asked for a time-frame, he said: “At this point, I can’t tell you how far along we will be on the question that I think they have, which is, when will they get off the list?. But I think we’re discussing – we’re prepared to continue that discussion.”

Last week’s talks were also deadlocked over the abductions of some 13 Japanese nationals decades ago, of whom five were released and the others died in custody, according to Pyonyang.

Japan has refused to provide aid until there is a satisfactory explanation to the problem relating to the abductions.

But the North Korean foreign ministry last week warned that “the nuclear issue on the peninsula will remain unsettled for an indefinite period” unless Japan changes its stance on assistance to Pyongyang.

Still, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun is sceptical about North Korea’s assurances of peace and stability in the long troubled peninsula since the 1950-53 Korean war broke out 57 years ago and ended in a truce.

In a speech to the National Unification Advisory Council in Seoul last week, the president said the 1953 ceasefire agreement needs to be replaced with a peace treaty.

The English language JoongAng Daily said: “A peace regime on the Korean peninsula can only be achieved as a result of denuclearisation. A peace regime is dependent on North Korea fulfilling its pledge on its nuclear programmes.”

A similar view was expressed by Kwon Yule-jung, director of the Welfare Business Division at the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs.

“Without a peace pact, it is possible for any signatory of the armistice (signed in 1953) to resume the war at any time,” he said.

If another war takes place, he warned, human casualties will be “beyond imagination.”

Meanwhile, after missing a deadline to shut down its nuclear facilities in Yongbyon, North Korea eventually kept its promise in mid-July – a closure described as the first step to scale back its nuclear programmes.

The unpredictable North Koreans also twice boycotted the six-party talks for more than a year.

As a second step, the Korea Times said the United States and South Korea should “make joint efforts to deal with North’s excessive demands, as well as to ensure its complete denuclearisation.”

“We urge North Korea not to turn back the clock on its disarmament commitment. It’s imperative for the North to regain trust from the international community by shaking off its image as a nuclear pariah and moving toward national reconciliation and permanent peace on the peninsula,” the editorial added.

The decision by North Korea to initially shut down its nuclear facilities has been hailed as a diplomatic success story for the administration of President George W. Bush.

As part of the deal, the United States cleared the way for the return of some 25 million dollars to North Korea which had remained frozen in a bank in Macao. The White House had characterised the funds as “ill-gotten gains” from arms sales and counterfeiting.

Referring to the closure of the nuclear facilities, Hill told reporters: “And as I’ve said many times, if it’s going to be meaningful, it needs to be followed by additional steps. And so with that in mind, we had a meeting of the heads of delegation of the six-party process to kind of chart the way ahead.”

As to the future, he said that five working groups, including those dealing with economic assistance, energy and denuclearisation, will be meeting in the weeks ahead, possibly in August, to map out future strategy.

Once the results of all these working groups are in place, he said, there would be another six-party meeting, probably at the beginning of September.

“And that’s when – now that we know the technical answers to – you know, various options for disabling the Yongbyon complex, that’s when we would try to put this together in a sequenced agreement which I hope could be concluded by the end of the year,” Hill said.

He also said: “Once we reach agreement in the six-party meeting, which is probably going to take us to one of these 11th hour deals, we would then hope to bring our ministers together in early September to bless what we’ve done and look ahead.”

Asked whether the North Koreans will be tough negotiators in sticking to their demands, Hill said: “Well, you’re quite right. They wouldn’t begin to disable (their nuclear programmes) until after everything’s agreed.”

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