N. Korea Talks Fizzle With No Disarmament Timetable

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 21, 2007

BEIJING, July 20 -- After three days of upbeat talks, negotiators from six nations announced Friday that they had failed to agree on a schedule for North Korea to take the next steps toward nuclear disarmament. They plan to meet again in September.

The United States and other countries pressed North Korea to accept a year-end deadline for fully disclosing all its nuclear activities and permanently disabling its main reactor, key moves toward the goal of the eventual complete dismantlement of its nuclear program.

But the North Koreans insisted on tighter coordination for what they would get in return for such steps, including 950,000 tons more fuel oil and progress toward better diplomatic relations, according to the chief U.S. negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill.

The outcome was another setback for the Chinese-sponsored negotiations -- including Japan, the United States, Russia and the two Koreas in addition to China -- that have been off and on for the past four years.

Diplomats had expressed hopes of keeping up the momentum generated by North Korea's closure Saturday of its main nuclear reactor in return for 50,000 tons of fuel oil to power its electricity generators.

The shutdown and oil deliveries constituted the first on-the-ground compliance with an accord reached in Beijing on Feb. 13 laying out a choreographed series of North Korean nuclear disarmament steps to be matched by economic aid and friendlier diplomatic ties with Washington and its Asian allies.

North Korea's statements have indicated that it expects improved relations to include an end to economic sanctions, removal from the U.S. list of governments supporting terrorism and less hostility from Japan. Linking these goals to the disarmament steps was the issue that diplomats proved unable to resolve in Beijing this week -- and that they may find haunting them in the days ahead.

The North Korean Foreign Ministry warned Friday, for instance, that the six-party talks could go into another stall if Japan continued to link aid to the dispute over Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean intelligence agents. Japan has refused to contribute economic aid to North Korea until it gets more information about what happened to Japanese citizens whom North Korean agents took to the communist state in the 1970s and '80s.

As the talks broke up, the diplomats decided to hand off discussions to lower-level working groups, assigned to coordinate the next steps with corresponding moves by the United States, Japan and others. A communique from China said the chief negotiators and their teams would return in September to try again for a firm schedule, based on information to be generated by the working groups.

The abductees will be the subject of one of the working groups, the Chinese communique said. Another group will focus on normalization of relations between the United States and North Korea, raising the issue of how swiftly the Bush administration can deliver the politically sensitive diplomatic changes demanded by North Korea.

In addition, Hill noted, some of the sequencing between aid deliveries and North Korean steps to dismantle the nuclear program demands technical expertise beyond the reach of nonspecialists. North Korea's port facilities allow it to absorb only about 50,000 tons of oil at once, for instance, suggesting that other forms of economic aid may have to be substituted to keep the corresponding steps by North Korea up to speed.

Departing Beijing on his way home, Hill portrayed the delay as a minor hiccup rather than the harbinger of another prolonged stall by North Korea. "I'm still of the view that with a little luck we can wrap this all up by the end of the year, but it's obviously going to be difficult," he told reporters.

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