N. Korea Talks Resume With 'Fresh' Hope

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 9, 2007

BEIJING, Feb. 8 -- Six-nation talks on dismantling North Korea's nuclear weapons program resumed Thursday, buoyed by signs that North Korea is ready to return to serious negotiations.

The Chinese chief negotiator and host, Vice Foreign Minister Wu Dawei, suggested there were hopes of breaking a long stalemate that has led to questions about the future of the talks, which have been grinding away, off and on, since August 2003. At a formal opening session, he qualified the new round as a "fresh start" made possible by agreements reached last month in separate discussions in Berlin between U.S. and North Korean diplomats.

"These results provide a more solid basis for this session," Wu said.

The last round of the Chinese-sponsored talks broke up in failure Dec. 22 after North Korea's top nuclear negotiator, Kim Gye Gwan, refused to engage in formal discussions about his country's nuclear weapons. He said nothing could be done on the nuclear front until resolution of a U.S.-North Korean financial dispute centering on a Macau bank accused of laundering illicit money from North Korea.

U.S. and North Korean banking officials have held two sessions of separate negotiations on the banking standoff. Although there has been no announcement indicating that the issue has been resolved, North Korean leaders apparently have decided that the exchanges show enough promise that they can resume discussing the nuclear problem.

The chief U.S. delegate, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill, said Thursday evening that the North Korean attitude appeared different from the balk in December. During Thursday's talks, Hill said, Kim displayed a willingness to negotiate that augured well for chances of making progress at least on some preliminary steps.

Kim said on his arrival that he came prepared to discuss the first steps in what the Bush administration hopes will be a gradual but irreversible program to eliminate North Korea's nuclear weapons and dismantle the facilities that produce fuel for the bombs. But he also made clear that agreement remains a distant goal.

In remarks to reporters, Kim said his willingness to negotiate depends on what the United States is willing to concede in return. Without citing specifics, he said the Bush administration must abandon its "hostile policy" and embrace "peaceful coexistence." The United States knows North Korea's requirements for reaching a first-step agreement, he added.

According to two U.S. nuclear experts who spoke with Kim last week in Pyongyang, North Korea's capital, the requirements include supplies of heavy fuel oil, resolution of the banking dispute, help in building civilian nuclear reactors and normalization of relations with the United States. In exchange, the experts said they were told, North Korea would be ready to freeze its Yongbyon reactor and allow the return of international nuclear inspectors to some North Korean facilities.

In an agreement in principle reached in September 2005, North Korea pledged to dismantle its entire nuclear program in return for economic aid and normalization of relations with the United States. That accord was hailed as a major step forward. The negotiations have stalled since then, however, on what steps should be carried out, and in what sequence, to put that pledge into practice.

In a measure of the difficulty, when the talks began more than three years ago they were designed to prevent North Korea from developing nuclear weapons, and that was the context in which the September 2005 accord was reached. Since North Korea set off a nuclear test explosion last October and declared itself a nuclear power, the emphasis has shifted to persuading the Pyongyang government to get rid of nuclear weapons it says it already has and to stop producing material to make more.

U.S. officials have said their intelligence indicates that North Korea has accumulated enough plutonium to fuel as many as 10 nuclear weapons and that its main facility, at Yongbyon, is producing more. In addition, U.S. officials have said North Korea has a separate uranium enrichment program to produce more weapons material, which Pyongyang denies.

In addition to North Korea, China and the United States, the talks involve South Korea, Russia and Japan.

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