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At North Korea Talks, Discord Is in the Details

The question isn't whether to rid Pyongyang of nuclear weapons, but how.

August 27, 2003|Barbara Demick and Sam Howe Verhovek | Times Staff Writers

BEIJING — At first glance, the North Korean nuclear crisis looks like one of those intractable diplomatic problems that invite hand-wringing and sighs of exasperation.

But there is surprisingly little disagreement among the representatives of six nations who convened in Beijing today. The consensus among participants is that a small and dysfunctional regime such as North Korea's should under no circumstances possess a nuclear bomb. Even the North Koreans seem resigned to scrapping their nuclear program.

There is also widespread agreement among the non-U.S. participants that the Bush administration needs to address the fears of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il that the United States is planning an Iraq-style invasion to send him the way of Saddam Hussein.

The obvious, if elusive, solution is a settlement that simultaneously ensures that the North Korean nuclear program is verifiably dismantled while easing the immediate fears of its leadership. The problem is not where to go, but how to get there.

Diplomats believe that the United States will be more amenable to deal-making than during the previous round of negotiations, which fell apart in late April, shortly after the White House proclaimed the end of Hussein's rule.

"It is a more sobering scenario that we are facing now in Iraq, and that is going to be a constraint on how strenuously the United States can throw its weight around on Korea," said Donald Gregg, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea and head of the Korea Society in New York.

"The Bush administration is in no position to open up a new front in North Korea. It is in their interests at this time to really push for a diplomatic solution," agreed Moon Chung In, a South Korean academic with close ties to his government.

Moon also believes that the presence of the three additional players -- Russia, Japan and South Korea -- which are this time joining the United States, North Korea and China, will put more pressure on the main actors to get serious.

"They can make it clear to the North Koreans that their nuclear program will not be tolerated, and on the other side they can push for a U.S. concession on declaring their nonhostile intent," Moon said.

The tone for the six-way meetings seemed relatively upbeat Tuesday, with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wang Yi holding a dinner for all delegations in advance of the formal talks.

The U.S. delegation sought to strike an optimistic tone in public, even though some American officials have privately lowered expectations for a breakthrough.

"We have worked for a long time to have these multilateral talks," James A. Kelly, the assistant secretary of State who heads the U.S. delegation, said Monday. He said his team was "looking forward to a direct and fair exchange of views."

Kelly met Tuesday with Japanese and South Korean diplomats, one of several smaller meetings the different players were holding in advance of the six-way talks that got underway about 9 a.m. today at Diaoyutai State Guest House.

Wang leads China's delegation. In comments released by the official New China News Agency, he said that China hoped all parties would "adopt a calm and patient attitude."

The last of the delegations to arrive was the North Koreans. It is headed by 49-year-old vice foreign minister Kim Yong Il, a former ambassador to Libya.

As host, China has staked a fair amount of prestige on the success of the talks -- or at least on their not being perceived as a waste of time. Chinese leaders have sent several recent signals that they expected the North Koreans to be prepared to make a deal -- and the United States not to be bellicose about forcing them to agree.

"China holds that the Korean peninsula should be nuclear-free and reasonable security concerns of the DPRK should be addressed," read a statement from New China News Agency, calling North Korea by its formal name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

A member of the American delegation said that virtually all aspects of planning for the meeting were sensitive.

A decision was reached to seat the six delegations in clockwise alphabetical order beginning with China, a neat arrangement that means negotiators from the countries in greatest tension with each other won't have to be in direct eye contact: It means that the United States will face Japan, and North Korea -- next to China, because of its DPRK initials -- will face Russia.

The United States had pushed hard to bring Russia, South Korea and Japan into the talks, while North Korea had wanted to negotiate one on one with the United States. There is some optimism that the multilateral setting will keep North Korea on its best behavior.

The April talks are mostly remembered for an exchange at the sidelines in which North Korean negotiator Li Gun told Kelly that his country already had nuclear weapons and was reprocessing fuel rods from a nuclear plant to make more. That bombshell contributed to the crisis now surrounding North Korea.

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