Compromise plan to end nuclear impasse with North Korea

Pyongyang must declare all uranium enrichment and technology transfer.

TOP US and North Korean diplomats gathered in Geneva yesterday to seek a breakthrough to end Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme.

On the table is a proposed compromise – crafted with the help of China, the host of six-party talks on North Korea’s disarmament – which could help Kim Jong Il’s regime save face and restart the stalled talks.

According to administration insiders, the plan entails the United States receiving full disclosure of North Korea’s nuclear activities, but Washington is prepared to be “flexible” on the form of that statement.

In effect, this might allow Pyongyang to make a separate declaration of uranium enrichment and any transfers of nuclear technology to other countries, most notably Syria.

“We have some ideas that may be workable, but they’re only workable within the context of providing a complete and correct declaration,” US chief negotiator Christopher Hill, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs, told reporters before leaving for Geneva.

But he indicated that sensitive elements of any North Korean declaration would not be kept secret. “I don’t think we can have secret agreements, secretly arrived at,” said Mr Hill, who will meet North Korean Vice-Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan for talks that could last over a day.

Under an agreement in February last year, Pyongyang was to have declared all nuclear programmes three months ago in exchange for energy aid. It eventually admitted to having 30kg to 40kg of plutonium.

It refused, however, to provide full details about a clandestine uranium enrichment plan and whether it had a role in a suspected Syrian covert nuclear site that was bombed by Israel in September.

“Any nuclear cooperation abroad needs to be clarified and certainly North Korea has said that they don’t have any now and won’t have any in the future, but we also need to know what went on in the past,” said Mr Hill.

North Korea has accused the US and other parties to the deal of failing to provide agreed aid.

It also wants the US to remove it from its list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Some observers believe that a deal might be possible now following weeks of uncertainty.

Mr Douglas Paal, a seasoned Asia hand and former administration official, told The Straits Times: “It appears that Hill has persuaded North Korea to move towards a compromise. Pyongyang was predictably slow, but recognises that it has to provide information on its proliferation with Syria and past experimentation with uranium enrichment.”

Once Pyongyang clears this barrier, the US is likely to start dismantling sanctions, including the Trading with the Enemy Act, and removing the regime from its terrorist list, he said.

This is likely to speed up the dismantling of North Korea’s Yongbyon facilities and the expended fuel rods there.

The key issue thus far has been “packaging” the North Korean declaration.

The proposed deal means the US would separately receive statements from North Korea on Syria and uranium enrichment, and then report them to the other parties.

The Nelson Report, a daily Washington-insider brief on international issues, said North Korea would then “not be placed in the position of having to admit to the group that its first declaration was ‘incomplete’…another way of stating that they would risk sounding like admitting to a lie”.

This could ultimately assuage Pyongyang’s concerns.

The US Congress also appears amenable to the plan.

“The key for Hill will be whether the US gets clarity on the enrichment programme and Syria. If we get it, in whatever form, we can move forward with sanctions relief and the next phase of negotiation,” a congressional source disclosed.

The ball is thus now firmly in North Korea’s court.

“North Korea is walking a very fine line in its discussions with the United States,” military strategist Dana Dillon told The Straits Times.

“Many in Washington are distrustful and sceptical of any agreement with the North Korea government. To maintain the reality of talks and retain the progress made so far, Kim Jong Il will have to provide a substantive and believable disclosure in accordance with the six party agreements.”

ALL IN THE OPEN

“I don’t think we can have secret agreements, secretly arrived at.”
US ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE CHRISTOPHER HILL (left), saying sensitive elements of any North Korean declaration would not be kept secret

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