US wants clear progress from N. Korea

SIX-PARTY NUCLEAR TALKS: ROUND SIX

Reports say limited deal may be best bet, but mistrust remains.

AFTER 13 months of diploma tic stalemate, the US will be looking for clear signs of progress on North Korean disarmament at this week’s six-party talks. Washington has drawn up a “wish list” of what it wants from Pyongyang: a suspension of operations at its main nuclear reactor in Yongbyon, admittance of international nuclear inspectors, a report on its nuclear facilities and the closure of its testing site.

But while chief US negotiator Christopher Hill believes there will be progress in the talks, other officials are privately sceptical that the North will backtrack on its nuclear programme.

Reports have suggested a “limited deal” in which North Korea may close its Yongbyon reactor in exchange for the easing of financial curbs and the loosening of restrictions by the US on a Macau-based bank linked to Pyong-yang’s money-laundering activities.

But the deep mistrust between the US and North Korea and growing intransigence of Pyongyang have produced a stand-off that shows little signs of quick resolution.

The thinking here is that having now proclaimed itself a nuclear power, North Korea is unlikely to honour any deal with the Americans that could reverse its march towards acquiring the bomb.

Given its limited influence over the North, the US is once again expected to play the China card.

Dr Gary Samore of the Council on Foreign Relations has described China as America’s “most important asset” in negotiating with Pyongyang. It was the Chinese, after all, who played a critical role in convincing the North’s leader Kim Jong Il in late October to rejoin the roundtable. The divergent interests of the countries involved in the talks – the two Koreas, the US, China, Japan, and Russia – also limit possibilities for a coherent North Korea policy.

Japan and the US, fearing the build-up of a North Korean arsenal capable of reaching their shores, have taken a hardline approach.

After Pyongyang’s Oct 9 nuclear test, China rebuked North Korea but still hesitated to back any harsh sanctions against it for fear of igniting a refugee influx from its communist neighbour.

But in recent months, US officials believe that Beijing and Washington are drawing closer together on the issue. They argue that Chinese strategic calculations are changing in view of the concerns that the North Korean nuclear crisis would present.

Chief among these are Japanese remilitarisation and the prospect of Tokyo acquiring a nuclear bomb, as well as the threat of American backing for Taiwan to go nuclear.

American analysts consider China to be very serious in its opposition to a North Korean nuclear test.

They maintain that if Mr Kim thinks he can call Beijing’s bluff, “he will discover that this will fundamentally re-define the terms of China’s relationship with the North”.

Beijing’s concerns that Pyongyang might cross the “red line” with a nuclear test have given Washington greater latitude in drawing up its options and contingencies in dealing with North Korea.

Diplomacy is clearly the Bush administration’s favoured option, now that it is running out of time to achieve tangible disarmament results on the Korean peninsula.

The six-party talks will give the administration – especially the pragmatic “realists” who have seized the initiative from the fading influence of neo-conservatives – a chance to gain traction on the diplomatic front, which found little support among the hardliners.

Certainly, “to jaw-jaw”, as Winston Churchill once said, “is always better than to war-war”.

But the US will have to be realistic about what the sixth round of talks – which first began in 2003 – can achieve.

Mr Hill is under no illusions that it will be a cakewalk. He has stressed the importance of moving from “simply talking about pages in an agreement”.

“The goal here is for North Korea to get on with denuclearisation. We have got to get the changes on the ground,”

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