China Says N. Korea Talks to Resume This Week

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 9, 2008

BEIJING, July 8 -- After a nine-month stall, China announced Tuesday that formal negotiations will resume this week on dismantling North Korea's nuclear weapons program, including ways to verify its recent accounting of plutonium-based nuclear material.

The talks, which the Chinese Foreign Ministry said will begin Thursday in Beijing and last three days, mark the latest attempt to maintain momentum in the start-and-stop six-party negotiations aimed at persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons and the means to produce them.

The talks, which have been underway for nearly five years under Chinese sponsorship, reached a milestone June 26 with a declaration by North Korea outlining its plutonium-based nuclear program, along with private acknowledgment of U.S. concerns about what may be a separate uranium-enrichment program and provision of nuclear assistance to Syria. In return, the Bush administration said it would drop North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism and abolish some trade restrictions against the isolated Stalinist state.

Qin Gang, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, qualified the exchange as "important progress" in the six-party process. The next step, U.S. officials said, is working out a schedule to verify North Korea's assertion that it has only 37 kilograms of plutonium and has destroyed the means to make more, including a cooling tower that was dynamited last month at the Yongbyon reactor near Pyongyang. Ultimately, according to past six-party accords, the goal is to have North Korea disclose and destroy its entire nuclear program, including whatever weapons may already have been produced.

North Korea pledged last October to do so. But it has balked in carrying out that pledge, saying fuel and other economic aid have failed to arrive as promised and refusing to discuss U.S. suspicions of the separate uranium-enrichment program. The announcement Tuesday left unclear when negotiators would approach that issue or seek answers about any stockpiled nuclear weapons and the ballistic missiles able to deliver them.

Accepting the partial June 26 declaration and taking the reciprocal steps without insisting on a complete report marked a significant concession from the Bush administration, drawing criticism in Washington. But Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill, the main U.S. negotiator, said that shutting down the Yongbyon reactor and ending North Korea's plutonium-based nuclear development was already a major accomplishment.

Responding to the critics, Hill pledged to keep pushing on the uranium-enrichment doubts, the degree of North Korean help to Syria and a complete disclosure of North Korea's weapons production. But North Korea announced recently that it would not move further until more of the 1 million tons of fuel promised in October lands in North Korean ports and the trade benefits set in motion by President Bush on June 26 start to bear fruit.

Delegates from the six nations resuming talks Thursday -- North and South Korea, Japan, Russia, China and the United States -- were expected to approve a long list of technical verification steps, including inspections and interviews with North Korean scientists, that are likely to take weeks if not months to complete.

President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea said in an interview released Tuesday by his office that the process will take time because it is complicated and requires complete cooperation from the North Korean government. But what Pyongyang has revealed so far, he added, is insufficient because it does not disclose the full extent of the weapons program.

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