North Korea Edges Back to Nuclear Talks

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

( - After a year-long hiatus, North Korea has agreed to return to multiparty talks on its nuclear weapons programs, although no date has yet been set, the State Department confirmed.

At Pyongyang's request, North Korean diplomats at the United Nations met with U.S. officials in New York on Monday and said their government was ready to return to talks involving the U.S., South Korea, Japan, China and Russia.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said no preconditions had been discussed.

The meeting came three weeks after an earlier one, requested by the U.S., at which North Korea was urged to return to the six-party talks.

Three rounds of inconclusive talks were held in the Chinese capital, with the last a year ago. At that meeting, the U.S. put forward a proposal involving staggered moves by the various parties aimed at shutting down the nuclear programs.

North Korea would get "provisional" security guarantees from the U.S. and energy aid from other neighboring countries, in return for its commitment to freeze all nuclear programs.

Those provisional measures would become permanent only once the programs were completely and verifiably dismantled.

Since that meeting, North Korea has refused to attend further talks. In recent months U.S. officials have several times raised the possibility of referring the matter to the U.N. Security Council in due course.

China's ambassador to the U.N., Wang Guangya, said in New York a fourth round of talks could begin in Beijing "in the next few weeks."

The U.S. has been prodding China, North Korea's closest ally, to use its influence to persuade Pyongyang to return to the talks

The reported breakthrough comes just days before South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun holds talks with President Bush at the White House.

Bush has met three times before with Roh, a liberal who has voiced objections to the prospect of applying pressure or imposing sanctions against North Korea.

His government, like that of China, has called for more "flexibility" from the parties - widely read as a reference to more concessions from the U.S.

Differences over how to deal with North Korea have exposed fissures in the half century -old military alliance between Seoul and Washington, as has Roh's aspiration for South Korea to play a "balancing" role in north-east Asia.

Although still vague, the notion is being interpreted as a bid for South Korea to adopt a posture that is more independent from the U.S.

South Korean analysts and media view the summit as significant.

"At stake ... will be the direction of the Seoul-Washington relationship, the North Korean dispute and thus, finally, nothing less than the future of the Korean peninsula," wrote commentator Kim Dae-joong in the Chosun Ilbo daily.

"The summit will determine whether the Republic of Korea and the United States walk the same road with regard to the security and economy of the Korean peninsula and the very existence of North Korea, or whether here is where they part company."

Prof. Kim Sung-han of the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security said the Bush-Roh meeting "will mark a turning point that determines how the current nuclear stalemate is to be addressed."


The nuclear crisis emerged when the State Department in October 2002 said North Korea had admitted carrying out a covert uranium-enrichment program, contravening an eight-year-old deal with the U.S., the Agreed Framework.

Under that 1994 agreement negotiated by the Clinton administration, North Korea undertook to freeze its nuclear program in return for U.S. fuel aid and the provision by the U.S. and its allies of alternative, civilian reactors for power supply purposes.

Following the Oct. 2002 confrontation, the agreement unraveled: the U.S. and its allies suspended fuel aid shipments and work on the civilian reactors, North Korea kicked out U.N. inspectors from its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon , restarted a mothballed reactor, withdrew from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and claimed to have reprocessed fuel rods which had been placed into storage under the 1994 deal.

North Korea demanded a non-aggression pact from the U.S. as well as diplomatic and economic concessions, while Washington said it should immediately and verifiably dismantle its nuclear programs.

Throughout the standoff, the U.S. has resisted North Korean demands for bilateral talks, insisting that the dispute with between the Stalinist state and the international community.

Eventually the six-party formula was worked out, and three rounds of talks held.

Last February North Korean announced that it possessed nuclear weapons, although in the absence of a test the claim has not been verified.

Back in 1994 the CIA assessed that North Korea had enough processed plutonium for one or two nuclear weapons.

After the 2003 reprocessing, experts at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at Monterey, Calif., estimated that it would have produced sufficient plutonium for another 5-6 weapons.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow