With N. Korea Talks Stalled, U.S. Tries New Approach

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 22, 2006

UNITED NATIONS, Sept. 21 -- With North Korea refusing to return to the six-nation disarmament talks, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Thursday convened a meeting of a new group of nations that will focus on Northeast Asian security concerns. Diplomats have dubbed the group "Five Plus Five" to refer to the 10 countries involved, but North Korea declined an invitation and China and Russia did not send representatives.

"It turned out to be the Six Minus One Plus Two Plus Three Minus Two," quipped Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill, the administration's point man on North Korea.

Few issues have proven as vexing as the impasse over North Korea's nuclear ambitions. In some ways, the gathering is the diplomatic equivalent of throwing spaghetti against the wall -- an effort to try something just to see what sticks.

"We had the three-party talks, the four-party and the six-party, and now the 10-party," said Kongdan Oh, an expert on the North Korean nuclear program at the Institute for Defense Analyses in Alexandria. "As the number of parties has gone up, the speed of the failure has gone faster."

A year ago this week, in what was hailed as a breakthrough, Hill and diplomats from North Korea, China, Russia, South Korea and Japan agreed to guidelines for negotiating the dismantling of North Korea's weapons programs in exchange for economic and political incentives. But the negotiations never got started in earnest.

Four days before the agreement was reached, the Treasury Department had designated Macao's Banco Delta Asia as acting as a front for North Korean counterfeiting operations. The Treasury action had wide repercussions, leading many banks around the world to curtail dealings with North Korea. North Korea declared that the action amounted to "financial sanctions," and refused to return to the six-party talks.

North Korea further rattled nerves with a ballistic missile test in July.

Now, with little prospect of restarting the six-party talks, the United States has decided to try to broaden the circle, bringing in nations such as New Zealand, Canada and Indonesia. The first meeting of the larger group was held on the sidelines of a July gathering of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), after the missile test. Thursday's meeting, at New York's Waldorf-Astoria hotel, was the second, and Hill said a third is planned for Hanoi in November, when heads of state gather for an annual Asia-Pacific summit.

"In Northeast Asia, we need a stronger dialogue on security issues," Hill said. "It's not to change the six-party talks. It's not to have an immediate sort of actionable outcome or something. It's simply to have information exchange."

But there is a broader subtext to the gathering. The Bush administration wants China to do more to bring North Korea back to the table, and Hill pointedly noted that several ministers present said China should do more.

Moreover, as a result of the U.N. Security Council resolution passed after the North Korea missile test, the United States has prepared a new package of sanctions. But the administration wants a number of other countries to sanction North Korea first, before it announces its own sanctions, so it will not look like the heavy.

At Thursday's meeting, representatives of Japan and Australia described the sanctions their governments recently imposed on Pyongyang, and Rice urged other countries to follow suit.

Finally, some of Rice's aides, such as counselor Philip D. Zelikow, have long been interested in reshaping the security framework of Northeast Asia. The region has no organization similar to NATO or ASEAN, in part because relations between China, Japan and South Korea are so tense. So when crises occur, diplomatic initiatives must be cobbled together from scratch. Some experts believe the new effort is an attempt to provide the building blocks for such an entity.

"I'm not going to make predictions at this point whether this is the protoplasm of a new OSCE," Hill said, referring to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a regional group that some see as a model for Northeast Asia. "I just at this point can't speculate that far ahead."

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