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U.S. Election May Be Distraction to North Korea in Nuclear Talks

The Pyongyang regime, which hopes Kerry will replace Bush, is unlikely to engage in serious bargaining in the latest round, analysts say.

June 23, 2004|Mark Magnier and Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writers

BEIJING — Even as U.S. and North Korean diplomats size one another up at the start of talks today aimed at eliminating Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program, they remain fundamentally distracted by the upcoming U.S. presidential election.

North Korea is not motivated to get down to hard bargaining with the Bush administration, analysts say, because its leadership hopes that Bush's Democratic opponent, Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, will be elected and adopt a softer stance.

The administration has its hands full with Iraq and remains divided on North Korea policy.

The lack of urgency is frustrating to the other parties involved in the talks -- China, South Korea, Japan and Russia -- who, as North Korea's closest neighbors, want an end to the uncertainty.

In the last round of talks, in February, South Korea put forward a proposal that remains on the table for the current talks, which are scheduled to end Friday. But there's little indication that the enormous gap between Washington and Pyongyang has narrowed in the months since.

"There is no particular reason to be optimistic, but I've come prepared for serious discussions," said the lead U.S. negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State James A. Kelly, as he arrived in Beijing on Tuesday.

Kelly added that the meeting was a great opportunity for North Korea to commit to eliminating its nuclear weapons program. Doing so would "open up all kinds of things politically, economically and diplomatically," he said.

The South Korean plan calls for North Korea to freeze its nuclear program on the road to complete dismantlement; a compensation package that probably would come from South Korea and Japan; and a search for solutions to other issues that include diplomatic normalization, membership in international organizations and the fate of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea.

"Our expectation is that we will use this round to fill in the details," said a South Korean official, who requested anonymity.

Among the proposal's many unresolved questions are the form and amount of compensation North Korea would receive, whether Pyongyang's highly enriched uranium program would be included in a freeze, how to verify an agreement and how much leeway North Korea would have to conduct peaceful nuclear research.

"There are a lot of details in the proposal that have not been fully developed, so there is hard work to be done," said Scott Snyder, a research fellow with the Asia Foundation in Washington. "But there is a big gap between the United States and North Korea, and it is not going to be closed at this meeting."

The player with the greatest appetite for a deal might be China, which has invested substantial effort in holding the talks and is one of the few countries that has the ears of both North Korea and the U.S.

"China is very busy now encouraging both sides to at least make a gesture," said Jin Canrong, deputy dean of the school of international relations at People's University in Beijing. "The talks need at the very least some symbolic progress or they will lose momentum."

But Chinese leaders are wary of pushing either side too hard, thereby risking embarrassment and further disappointment. At the end of February's talks, China lobbied hard for a binding statement to avoid backsliding, only to see Pyongyang balk at the last minute. Beijing also was unhappy with the Bush administration's all-or-nothing stance toward a deal with North Korea.

"We can invite Pyongyang and Washington to the party," said Wu Xinbo, an international relations expert at Shanghai's Fudan University. "But it's Pyongyang and Washington that have to dance."

Although it is possible that a Kerry administration wouldn't significantly change the U.S. stance, Pyongyang holds out hope that the talks would be less rancorous. President Bush has made no secret of his personal dislike for North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

"Bush has insulted Kim personally in a part of the world where those things count for something," said Kenneth Lieberthal, a former Clinton administration official who teaches at the University of Michigan.

Despite the general lack of progress at the table, there has been substantial movement on the periphery since the last round of talks.

Tension between the two Koreas has eased noticeably in recent weeks. The neighbors have toned down their propaganda war across the demilitarized zone and started dismantling loudspeakers and signboards.

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi traveled to Pyongyang for a summit last month and returned with five family members of Japanese abducted in the 1970s and 1980s, even as the nation's legislature took steps authorizing Tokyo to ban North Korean ships from Japanese ports.

The U.S. has announced plans to pull 12,500 of its 37,000 troops out of South Korea. And South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun has outlined economic benefits for North Korea if Washington and Pyongyang can agree on security issues.

Magnier reported from Beijing and Demick from Seoul.

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