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Beijing Summit on N. Korea Lives Up to Low Expectations

The six nations agree to avoid moves that would increase tensions on the nuclear issue, with an eye toward the next round of talks in the fall.

August 30, 2003|Sam Howe Verhovek and Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writers

BEIJING — The six nations that held talks here this week on North Korea's nuclear weapons program agreed to avoid steps that would increase tensions and planned to meet again within two months, officials said Friday.

The head of the host Chinese delegation, Vice Foreign Minister Wang Yi, said all parties had agreed on a basic framework to continue the talks and had "agreed not to take any actions that will escalate tension as long as dialogue moves along."

Other delegates at the talks, which brought together officials from the United States, North Korea, South Korea, Russia, Japan and China, said that they would meet again in China within two months.

But North Korea hardly seemed to be toning down its rhetoric. It put out a series of ominous-sounding statements through its official news agency just as the three days of talks here were ending Friday. It said its expectations of success at the talks had been "betrayed" by the continued "hostile" policy of the U.S. If that policy continues, the commentary said, North Korea "cannot dismantle its nuclear deterrent force, but will have no option but to increase it."

However, it added, "We can dismantle our nuclear program if the U.S. makes a switch over in its hostile policy toward us, and does not pose any threat to us." Another statement quoted the chief North Korean negotiator here as saying the North's goal was to eliminate nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula. "It is not our goal to have nuclear weapons," it said.

In Washington, officials said the talks had a positive outcome.

"We are pleased that at the meeting a consensus developed that the multilateral process can advance towards the goal of a peaceful resolution to the North Korea nuclear problem," said State Department spokeswoman Jo-Anne Prokopowicz.

Privately, U.S. negotiators downplayed the North Korean rhetoric, saying that North Korean delegates had also seemed at times to be intently looking for diplomatic seeds of a resolution.

North Korea says it wants large amounts of aid, diplomatic recognition and a legally binding guarantee that it will not be attacked in return for giving up its nuclear weapons program and submitting to verification. The Bush administration regards that as blackmail, and insists that North Korea forgo its weapons program as a precondition for other talks.

Given that, the meeting here seems to have wound up as neither a big success nor a fiasco.

"The meeting lived up to its low expectations," said Scott Snyder, Seoul representative for the Asia Foundation, a San Francisco-based think tank. "The talks didn't truly break down -- if they did, we would be back to a crisis. None of the parties, for their own reasons, desire to escalate the situation right now."

Snyder said North Korea's threat to conduct a nuclear test was not new, but "the question is what impact that piece of news had on the positions of China and Russia." Those two countries have generally protected North Korea, but say they have no interest in it developing into a nuclear power.

"If the North Koreans have alienated the Russians and Chinese, then they've really made things worse for themselves," Snyder said.

The chief Russian negotiator, Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov, disputed reports of the threat, telling Russian media that North Korea only spoke about conducting a nuclear test if hostilities against it escalated.

Wang, the Chinese delegation leader, sidestepped the question of threats and appeared to show some support for both the North Koreans and the United States by saying the countries would not fight over the issue.

"The United States said it has no intention of threatening North Korea, no intention of invading North Korea and no intention of seeking a regime change in North Korea," Wang said, speaking at a news conference in Beijing after the meeting.

China can put enormous pressure on North Korea by reducing supplies of food and fuel. But Chinese officials also fear chaos on the border if the North Korean regime collapses.

"That remains the great mystery -- how far is China willing to go to use its leverage?" said Robert Ross, a China specialist at Boston College. "It's the only country that has an effective influence over North Korea. It is beginning to cut down on aid. But we don't know if the Chinese are willing to pull the trigger on this and go all the way."

Stephen Bosworth, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, said China's new president, Hu Jintao, was likely to play a major role in keeping discussions going.

"As a new leader, he's put himself on the line, and if the North Koreans stiff him -- or if we stiff him -- he suffers a major loss of face," Bosworth said.

There was no formal statement issued after the meeting. Instead, Wang, the head of the Chinese delegation, read a series of statements of principle about how the countries had listened to each other and agreed to keep talking. He also said they agreed to work toward a nuclear arms-free Korean peninsula.

"The talks saw progress and also differences, but all parties thought the talks were beneficial," Wang said.

South Korean Vice Foreign Minister Lee Soo Hyuck told reporters there had been discussion of a "phased approach" in which North Korea and the U.S. would follow an intricate procedure to eliminate the weapons as well as secure an aid and security package for North Korea. But no road map for such a plan was laid out, delegates said.

Some analysts thought the meeting resulted in something of a victory for the North Koreans, since they seem to have bought themselves more time to develop their weapons program. But others sought to put the bluster in perspective, and said the important result was that North Korea appeared to be listening to proposed solutions.

"The North Koreans are looking for some sort of exit from the current jam they're in," said Dali Yang, a China scholar at the University of Chicago.

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