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Thursday, March 4, 2004

China shines as host at arduous standoff

HONG KONG -- The second round of the six-party talks in Beijing on North Korea's nuclear weapons program went off relatively well even though there was no breakthrough. While the United States and North Korea may not agree on much, both agreed that China had done an excellent job as host and mediator.

Clearly, Pyongyang and Washington are still far apart -- so far, indeed, that the two could not agree on a joint statement at the end of the talks, forcing China to issue a "chairman's statement" instead and point to an "extreme lack of trust."

The tone of these talks was clearly different from the last round. There were no threats by North Korea to conduct a nuclear test or to take other action that would merely exacerbate the situation. The U.S. stuck to its position of not providing aid or a security guarantee to North Korea until after the "complete, verifiable and irreversible" dismantling of Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program.

This approach was again criticized by North Korea. A Foreign Ministry spokesman said after the talks ended that his country had "shown greatest magnanimity" by its willingness to scrap its nuclear program in exchange for a simultaneous package solution. However, he said, the U.S. again insisted that it can discuss North Korea's concerns "only when it completely scraps its nuclear program in a verifiable and irreversible manner."

Moreover, he said, the U.S. refused to normalize relations with North Korea even after the abandonment of its nuclear program "unless missile, conventional weapons, biological and chemical weapons, human rights and other issues are settled."

Clearly, North Korea is not going to give in to all the American demands without quid pro quos along the way or what the chairman's report described as "coordinated steps" that are necessary to address the nuclear issue and related concerns.

However, Washington was pragmatic enough not to oppose South Korea's proposal to commence economic aid to North Korea once it freezes its nuclear program on condition that the freeze is only a step toward total dismantlement.

This may point the way to a series of "coordinated steps" that, hopefully, will lead to an overall resolution of this knotty problem. Washington should realize that in the absence of a freeze, North Korea is free to continue to improve both the quantity and the quality of its nuclear weapons.

One concrete achievement of this round was agreement to hold another session before the end of June. This contrasts starkly with the situation after the first round, when North Korea said it would not take part in any further sessions. Clearly, all the parties feel that having a forum in which they can express their views is useful. South Korea, in fact, has proposed that the six parties meet every two months.

Another sign of progress was the agreement to set up a lower-level working group to prepare for the next plenary session. However, neither the terms of reference of the working group nor its role have been agreed upon and serious differences are likely to emerge. If problems can be sorted out at the working level, however, then future plenary sessions should proceed more smoothly.

One new issue that has emerged is North Korea's insistence on retaining what it calls a nuclear program for peaceful purposes, such as for the generation of electricity. Under the Agreed Framework of 1994, Pyongyang had agreed to abandon such a program, which was why the U.S. agreed to provide oil as compensation for lost energy. Hopefully, Pyongyang will be willing to give this up again as part of an overall resolution.

China, as host, was mindful of the needs of all the participants. The Chinese Foreign Ministry, without mentioning names, warned against any use of force or threat to use force, as well as against sanctions, blockades or pressures and stressed that equal weight should be given to denuclearization as to the security concerns of North Korea.

Clearly, China's international image has been enhanced by the earnestness with which it has approached the North Korean issue and by the amount of work its officials have put into it, flying from one capital to another to consult the different parties before agreement was reached to convene this round.

So far, China has been overseeing the delicate negotiating process and shouldering this heavy responsibility with a sure hand and with diplomatic aplomb. We are witnessing the emergence of China as a new diplomatic player on the world stage, one whose role is at this point much appreciated by the international community. But the road ahead is arduous and one false step could undo all the work it has done so far.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.

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