By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 1, 2006
North Korea agreed yesterday to return to the six-nation nuclear disarmament talks, just three weeks after it conducted its first test of a nuclear device.
The country's unexpected decision, which was announced by Chinese and U.S. officials in Beijing, will end Pyongyang's year-long boycott of the talks, which have dragged on intermittently for more than three years. Fourteen months ago, North Korea agreed in principle to dismantle its nuclear programs, but hard bargaining is still necessary to determine the sequence and timing of the incentives it expects in return.
Pyongyang had refused to return to the talks until the United States separately negotiated an end to a crackdown on North Korea's counterfeiting of U.S. currency. But that demand disappeared Tuesday during seven hours of meetings, set up by China at Beijing's Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, involving U.S., North Korean and Chinese officials. North Korea instead agreed to a long-standing U.S. proposal to deal with the counterfeiting issue through a working group of the six-party talks.
Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill emerged from the meetings to say that there was the potential for "substantial progress" in resolving an issue that has raised tensions throughout the region, including the possibility of a nuclear arms race. U.S. officials were privately puzzled by the mercurial government's change of heart, though they said they hope the universal condemnation of North Korea's nuclear test and the swift imposition of U.N. sanctions had played a role.
"In the wake of their test, it became very clear that there were going to be costs and consequences for their actions and that they faced even greater isolation from the rest of the international community," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. The talks are expected to resume either this month or in December.
Some analysts and diplomats have faulted the Bush administration for being inflexible and ideological during earlier rounds, making it difficult to reach agreement. David Straub, a former State Department official who was part of the U.S. delegation to some of the talks, said North Korea probably shifted tactics to deflect international pressure and divide the nations at the negotiating table. Unless both the United States and North Korea "bring significantly different approaches to the talks, the talks will again amount to nothing," he said. "Indeed, both will almost certainly take even tougher lines."
President Bush, meeting with reporters in Washington, praised China's role in setting up the meeting. "We'll be sending teams to the region to work with our partners to make sure that the current United Nations Security Council resolution is enforced, but also to make sure that the talks are effective, that we achieve the results we want," Bush said.
Last Wednesday, the Chinese government contacted the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and proposed a trilateral meeting involving North Korea, the United States and China. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Friday authorized Hill to cut short the meetings he had in the South Pacific and to slip into Beijing on an unannounced visit. U.S. officials agreed to try the Chinese idea but had little expectation it would yield a breakthrough.
In January, Hill held a 2 1/2 -hour meeting in Beijing with the Chinese and North Koreans to try to restart the talks, but that effort was not successful.
This time, Hill had seven hours of meetings -- including, at one point, with Kim Gye Gwan, the North Korean vice foreign minister who is Hill's counterpart in the talks, and other North Korean officials. Hill said he told Kim that the United States would never accept North Korea as a nuclear power, nor would any other nation. Hill also told Kim that the U.N. Security Council resolution imposed after North Korea's nuclear test was an "international obligation" and not up for discussion before the resumption of the talks.
The meetings were described as very businesslike. Kim wanted assurances that a Treasury Department action against a Macau bank suspected of money laundering for North Korea would be addressed in the six-party talks. The United States had earlier suggested setting up a working group to address the issue, and Hill reaffirmed that idea. Kim said that was acceptable, according to Hill.
U.S. officials have maintained that the Treasury case was simply an excuse by North Korea to avoid making the strategic choice of giving up its nuclear programs. In earlier talks, Pyongyang had demanded light-water reactors in exchange for abandoning its programs. Though that possible incentive is mentioned in a September 2005 "statement of principles" to guide nuclear negotiations, the United States has insisted that it is only a theoretical possibility that could come at the end of the verified dismantling of North Korea's nuclear facilities.
North Korea set no conditions for returning to the six-party talks on its nuclear program, Hill said. "For us it was very important that no one should create conditions for attending the talks," he said.
Michael J. Green, who oversaw Asian affairs at the White House until last year, said it was significant that North Korea agreed to return without getting relief from the Treasury action or the U.N. sanctions.
"The Chinese exerted real pressure," Green said. He added that he expects China to push North Korea to offer something concrete at the upcoming rounds of talks, such as a moratorium on future tests, a full detailing of its nuclear programs or the return of international inspectors at its Yongbyon facility.
"North Korea is going to cling tenaciously to its nuclear weapons," Green said, but the existence of U.N. sanctions will facilitate coercive diplomacy.
North Korea has blamed the impasse on the U.S. Treasury action against a bank in Macau called Banco Delta Asia, which the department had identified as the main conduit for bringing North Korean-made counterfeit U.S. bills into the international system. The Treasury had determined that senior officials at the Macau bank accepted large deposits of cash and agreed to place the bogus money into circulation.
The bank is also reputed to hold the private accounts of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and his family.