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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, August 14, 2005

Entrenched positions slow North Korea talks

By Donald Kirk

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, center, has been praised for his diplomacy, but will it be enough to move talks forward?

Associated Press


The diplomats call it a "recess," but the decision to call a three-week break in the six-party talks in Beijing on North Korea's nuclear weapons program may signal the futility, if not the failure, of diplomacy as the solution to the standoff.

That's the impression emerging from nearly two weeks of off-again, on-again talks that engendered false hopes, at least in South Korea, that the process might end in a face-saving piece of paper called a "statement of principles," on which all sides could agree.

South Korean officials, eager to pursue reconciliation with the United States, blame the United States almost as much as North Korea for the inability of the sides to come to terms. South Korea's chief envoy, Song Min-soon, has said that the United States and North Korea remain apart on critical points, including whether North Korea has the right to harness nuclear energy for direly needed electrical power rather than warheads.

The U.S. position is that North Korea essentially forfeited that right by forging ahead with a program for processing highly enriched uranium for warheads in violation of the 1994 Geneva agreement, under which the North shut down its nuclear facility at Yongbyon. In exchange, the United States had agreed to send heavy fuel oil to North Korea during construction of twin light-water nuclear energy reactors, for which South Korea and Japan agreed to put up most of the $5 billion bill.

The whole deal fell apart in October 2002 after North Korea appeared to acknowledge the uranium program to a delegation led by James Kelly, then chief U.S. negotiator on North Korea.

North Korea, however, insists the United States, South Korea and Japan have to live up to that agreement and go on with construction of the reactors. North Korea also emphatically denies the existence of the uranium program, charging that Kelly completely distorted whatever he was told during his 2002 visit.

The level of distrust between Washington and Pyongyang is such that Kelly's successor, Christopher Hill, has repeatedly said the United States has to see North Korea at least begin to shut down its nuclear program. North Korea has said proudly that it has restarted its facility at Yongbyon and is now producing warheads with plutonium at the core, while again refusing to acknowledge anything to do with building warheads from highly enriched uranium, which has an explosive impact still more devastating than plutonium.

South Korean officials give Hill high marks for diplomacy, crediting him with having talked tactfully while showing requisite patience, but question whether his approach represents any shift in U.S. policy. Hill, for his part, has made a show of coordinating closely with South Korea's envoy Song, whom he got to know when both were serving as ambassadors in Poland.

Hill calls the talks "excruciating" and profusely thanks China, as both host and creator of a series of draft statements, for having done a masterful job of pushing the process ahead. He also says North Korea stands alone in refusing to compromise on his proposal for the North to begin dismantling its nukes while South Korea begins to make good on its offer to provide North Korea with half its energy needs from power plants in the South.

All the sweet talk, however, may get nowhere as long as North Korea sticks to its guns. North Korea is not likely to return to the table with any notion of a shift in policy. Nor is the United States.

The next step, while the talks simmer on, may turn out to be for the United States to press ahead with a demand for debate in the U.N. Security Council on sanctions. John Bolton, the newly appointed U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has been calling for just such a move for more than two years, beginning when he was undersecretary of state for arms control.

North Korea has said sanctions would be tantamount to a "declaration of war," and China is certain to veto any resolution on sanctions in the Security Council. In the meanwhile, look for more diplomacy, more rhetoric — and no solution to the Korean nuclear standoff in the foreseeable future.

Donald Kirk is a journalist and author who has been covering the Korean nuclear issue for more than 10 years. He wrote this commentary for Newsday.