Q&A / Nuclear disarmament talks / N. Korea backs off hard line

Published Nov. 1, 2006|Updated Nov. 1, 2006

North Korea agreed on Tuesday to resume nuclear disarmament talks, the first sign of easing tensions since the country's nuclear test three weeks ago. China announced that six-nation talks will reconvene shortly, after a more than yearlong hiatus, and the American negotiator in Beijing said they could take place later this month or in December.

How did this happen?

The surprise diplomatic breakthrough was struck in a day of unpublicized discussions between senior envoys from the United States, China and North Korea at a government guest house in Beijing. The U.S. negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, described backstage Chinese efforts to get the talks on track, saying Beijing contacted Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice late last week to ask if she would dispatch him to Beijing for the three-way discussion with North Korea.

Does this mean North Korea will give up its nuclear program?

No. This puts us back to where we were before North Korea withdrew from the six-party talks 11 months ago.

Then why is the agreement significant?

North Korea conducted its underground detonation on Oct. 9, defying warnings from the United States, Japan and its staunchest ally, China. The agreement marks a diplomatic victory for China and the United States, but especially for Beijing. Though stung by Pyongyang's test, China had counseled against punishing North Korea too harshly, weakening a U.N. resolution sanctioning Pyongyang, and suggested leaving a path for diplomacy.

What was the reaction to North Korea's apparent decision?

President Bush welcomed the agreement, saying he was pleased and thanking China for its part. But he said the agreement would not halt U.S. efforts to enforce the U.N. Security Council resolution that imposed sanctions on trade in military materials and luxury goods in response to the North's atomic test. South Korea, which like China has urged diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang, and Russia were optimistic about the prospects of resuming the negotiations. But Japan, which feels threatened by North Korea's nuclear and missile programs, took a more skeptical line. While Tokyo welcomed the prospect, it "does not intend to accept North Korea's return to the talks on the premise that it possess nuclear weapons," news reports quoted Foreign Minister Taro Aso as saying.

Haven't these talks been going on for a while?

They began with a 1990s round that led to a freeze that the Bush administration says Pyongyang violated. Starting first as a three-way parlay with Beijing, the current round of negotiations then added Japan, Russia and South Korea, before holding three on-again, off-again sessions beginning in 2003. The negotiations stalled after the United States imposed financial sanctions over alleged counterfeiting and money laundering by Pyongyang to sell weapons of mass destruction. North Korea withdrew in November 2005.

Is there any indication that there has been a change in the position of either side?

Diplomacy is measured in millimeters. Hill said both the United States and North Korea showed flexibility at Tuesday's meeting, with Washington agreeing to discuss the financial sanctions. Washington previously had said the issue was unrelated to talks on Pyongyang's nuclear program. For its part, Pyongyang did not make the lifting of the U.S. sanctions a condition for resuming the talks, Hill said. The brief Chinese statement did not clarify on what conditions, if any, North Korea had agreed to return to the talks.

What does Washington want?

Ultimately, for North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program. State Department spokesman Tom Casey said the United States would enter the new round of talks insisting they start with a September 2005 agreement between the six nations in which North Korea pledged to scrap its nuclear programs in return for aid and security assurances. Key in the coming days, Hill said, would be to make sure a new round would deal substantively with that agreement, including how North Korea would take steps to ultimately give up its nuclear programs. Other issues, such as a South Korean proposal to provide electricity to the impoverished North and how to set up mechanism to discuss the U.S. financial sanctions, also were likely be explored.

What does North Korea want?

Direct, one-on-one talks with the United States, in keeping with its stance that its nuclear dispute is with Washington alone. Pyongyang also wants to be seen as on equal footing with Washington, a desire fueled by nationalistic ideology, viewing itself as a great nation and "socialist paradise."

Did the recent U.N. sanctions play a role?

Probably indirectly. A U.N. committee has still been meeting over the best way to implement the sanctions on the North's weapons trade and imports of luxury goods. Washington has been seeking to gather support for the sanctions, and getting the North's top two trading partners - China and South Korea - to pressure the regime back to the negotiating table. China supplies almost all of North Korea's oil supplies. Although China said it had no plans to cut off aid or trade to North Korea, it signed on to the recent U.N. sanctions. South Korea has also been critical of the nuclear test, and backed the U.N. sanctions.

If not the U.N. sanctions, then what?

China had warned its long-time ally against a missile test in July and the nuclear test earlier this month, with little effect, straining relations. The nuclear weapon test added urgency to efforts to restart the six-nation talks. The United States and China both want to maintain the current military balance in northeast Asia by ending the north's nuclear weapons programs. But they have differed on how to go about it. While Washington and Japan moved swiftly to impose sanctions on North Korea, China has worried that harsh economic blockades would destabilize the communist regime, which it wants to sustain as a buffer against American influence. President Bush, who faced some criticism at home after the North Korean test, also faced significant political pressure to agree to new talks. If the United States agreed to meet the North's demand for direct talks and other concessions, without a return to talks, it might be viewed as succumbing to nuclear blackmail.

How dangerous is North Korea?

The country is believed to have enough radioactive material to make about a half-dozen bombs, but estimates vary because of limited intelligence about its nuclear program. Bush administration officials say the North is a leading seller of missile technology to other countries, and given its history of flouting international treaties, could easily turn to selling nuclear materials.

Are we sure that North Korea will even show up at the talks?

No. A lot depends on the negotiations over the next weeks leading up to the next round of talks.

Sources: Associated Press, New York Times

Six-party talks: Who wants what?

The six-party talks concerning North Korea's nuclear program involve the United States, North Korea, China, Japan, Russia and South Korea.

United States: wants the four other nations involved to quash North Korea's desire for bilateral negotiations, which could be seen as legitimizing a rouge regime; has called North Korea part of the "axis of evil" and wants Kim Jong Il to give up his nuclear weapons program and allow inspections North Korea: considers nuclear weapons vital to its national security and sees the nuclear program as a sign of international prestige; wants sanctions lifted to prevent crippled economy from deteriorating further China: wants a stable North Korea on its border to reduce the exodus of North Korean refugees into Chinese territory; doesn't want a failed state or a military conflict on its border; would like to see North Korea adopt economic reforms Russia: sees the talks as an opportunity to promote long-term Russian economic, political, and security interests in Northeast Asia Japan: is within range of North Korean missiles; wants security protected; also North Korea has abducted Japanese citizens South Korea: once regarded North Korea as its main enemy, but is trying to live in greater contact with the country; still a nuclear armed North Korea is seen as a grave danger.