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NORTH KOREA: China Seeks to Jumpstart Stalled Nuke Talks

Eli Clifton

WASHINGTON, Oct 5 2009 (IPS) - North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il's decision to personally greet Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao at the Pyongyang airport Sunday is being taken as a positive sign that North Korea may be willing to restart talks on nuclear disarmament.

The move has increased expectations that Wen's three-day trip will produce a breakthrough in bilateral or multilateral negotiations with North Korea. It is especially significant as Pyongyang is known for carefully managing diplomatic events.

Former U.S. president Bill Clinton, upon his arrival to secure the release of two U.S. journalists in early August, was greeted by Kim Kye-gwan, North Korea's lead nuclear negotiator, in a move read by many North Korea watchers as a message from Kim Jong-Il that he was willing to return to negotiations.

Wen's visit is timed to commemorate the 60th anniversary of diplomatic ties between North Korea and China.

While reports from Wen's visit have been limited, Kim Jong-Il reportedly "expressed the will to realise the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, the behest of President Kim Il-sung, through bilateral and multilateral dialogues," according to the North's official Korean Central News Agency.

The mention of multilateral talks is common from Pyongyang and is not necessarily an endorsement of the Six-Party Talks – comprised of North Korea, South Korea, Russia, Japan, the United States and China – but it is strongly believed that the Chinese premier would not travel to Pyongyang without an understanding that he would return to Beijing with a diplomatic coup.

The talks have been at a standstill since North Korea tested what was believed to be an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in early April, leading the U.N. Security Council to expand sanctions.

Pyongyang announced later in the month that it "will never again take part in such [six-party] talks and will not be bound by any agreement reached at the talks".

In May, North Korea tested a nuclear device, and on Sep. 10, Pyongyang announced in a letter to the U.N. Security Council that "reprocessing of spent fuel rods is at its final phase and extracted plutonium is being weaponized."

Both Washington and Seoul repeatedly stated that bilateral talks outside of the Six-Party framework with Pyongyang regarding the North's nuclear programme would be unacceptable, but concerns were raised after Bill Clinton's trip in August that Pyongyang might be making progress in engaging the U.S. bilaterally on the nuclear issue.

"While the [Barack] Obama administration may be willing to hold initial bilateral talks to explore North Korea's position, even that would have to be within a Six-Party framework, from the U.S. point of view," Alan D. Romberg, director of the East Asia programme at the Henry L Stimson Centre, told IPS.

"To go beyond that and enter into actual negotiations the Obama administration would insist that North Korea is not at the table as a nuclear weapons state and that Pyongyang is committed to denuclearisation via irreversible steps. Moreover the administration will continue to insist that all of this take place within a Six-Party framework."

Pressure from Beijing – frequently seen as the most direct method of swaying policy in Pyongyang – has, according to diplomats, surprised North Korean leadership. China has taken a hard-line stance in implementing U.N. sanctions imposed after North Korea tested a rocket in April and detonated a nuclear device in May.

"China joining in the vote for the sanctions may have gone beyond what North Korea necessarily expected but it probably did not," said Romberg. "By now [Pyongyang] has probably realised that if they did a nuclear test, China would react."

"They may have been surprised that China has cooperated with the sanctions themselves but there's not much evidence that China has taken actions that would really threaten stability of the regime," he added.

Over the past month, Kim Jong-Il's regime has permitted more contact between separated families across the demilitarised zone (DMZ) and extended invitations to U.S. special envoy Stephen Bosworth and chair of the Senate Foreign Relations committee Sen. John Kerry to come to Pyongyang for talks.

The developments have led Foreign Policy in Focus co-director John Feffer to write, "The time is now to engage North Korea diplomatically and finally end the Korean War with a permanent peace treaty."

"By supporting the winds of peace and reconciliation blowing across the DMZ, President Obama will have one less foreign policy challenge and move one step closer towards his vision of a nuclear free world," Feffer concluded.

Indeed cross-DMZ relations have improved considerably as Pyongyang has focused on relatively popular initiatives to build goodwill between the Koreas and garner some positive publicity for the North's reclusive leadership.

But progress in denuclearising the Korean peninsula – a goal of particular significance to the U.S. partly due to fears of nuclear proliferation – seems stuck since the North's nuclear tests and outright rejection of the Six-Party Talks last spring.

"North Korea has dug itself into a position it's never been in before with the Six-Party Talks," said Romberg. "Their language about the Six-Party Talks is qualitatively different than before."

While North Korea may want to engage the U.S. and China in bilateral or multilateral negotiations, it remains difficult to envision how any serious negotiations on denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula could take place outside of the Six-Party framework without significantly reducing the role of U.S. regional allies.

Bilateral relations between North Korea with China, South Korea and the U.S. seems to have improved in August and September, but the commitment by members of the Six-Party Talks to only negotiate denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula within that framework and Pyongyang's outright rejection of the multilateral talks makes it difficult to foresee a roadmap for engaging North Korea on its nuclear programme in a forum agreeable to all invested parties.

"[W]e, of course, encourage any kind of dialogue that would help us lead to our ultimate goal that's shared by all the partners in the Six-Party Talks, which, of course, is the complete and verifiable denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula," said State Department spokesman Ian Kelly when asked about Wen's visit.

"That is our goal, that North Korea will return to the Six-Party Talks, and that is a goal we share with the Chinese," he concluded.

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