Allies doubt future of North Korea talks
International Herald Tribune | APRIL 28, 2005
By Choe Sang-Hun
SEOUL A senior U.S. official expressed doubt on Wednesday about the future of six-nation talks on ending North Korea's nuclear weapons program, as Washington and its allies considered how long they should continue their so-far unsuccessful diplomatic effort to persuade the Communist state to return to the negotiating table.
In public statements, the United States, South Korea and Japan still emphasize the need for a diplomatic end to the nuclear dispute. But over the past few weeks, especially after a series of what have been viewed as provocative moves by North Korea, the allies have begun to contemplate whether it was time for a new approach.
"The future of talks is very much uncertain at this point," Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, Washington's top negotiator on the North Korean nuclear crisis, told reporters in Beijing on Wednesday. "We continue to have a North Korean regime that is very ambivalent about whether it wants to find a negotiated settlement to this."
In Seoul, Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon of South Korea said measures of both "inducement" and "pressure" were under consideration. "I cannot tell you when will be the turning point," Ban told a news briefing, urging North Korea to return to talks if it wanted to have a "bright future."
"We will strengthen our diplomatic efforts until it stops being appropriate," he said.
Participants in talks, which have been stalled for nearly one year, are the United States, the two Koreas, Japan, China and Russia. Among them, South Korea has been the most vocal advocate for a diplomatic settlement. But even in Seoul, official rhetoric has recently undergone a subtle yet significant change.
After Hill's visit in Seoul earlier this week, a senior official from the South Korean Foreign Ministry, speaking on condition of anonymity, told South Korean reporters: "Sooner or later we will have to determine whether it is positive or negative," he said, referring to six-nation talks.
In Beijing, Hill discussed with Chinese officials how to find a way to entice the North back to the talks. China, a primary trade partner and aid provider for the North, is also a key participant in the diplomatic efforts to draw North Korea back to the negotiating table.
It was unclear what commitment Hill had received from China. But China's UN ambassador, Wang Guangya, told reporters in New York that any U.S. attempt to get the UN Security Council to impose sanctions on North Korea would "destroy" the six-party talks and make "a solution for this issue even farther away," the Bloomberg news agency reported.
Tensions on North Korea's nuclear programs grew after a Feb. 10 announcement by the country that it had already built nuclear bombs. Earlier this month, it shut down a nuclear reactor in an apparent move to unload spent fuel and extract plutonium to enlarge its nuclear arsenal. This week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice of the United States said Washington reserved the right to take North Korea to the UN Security Council, where it could demand sanctions.
Like Ban, Hill said he did not want to discuss "artificial deadlines" for ending six-nation talks. He was scheduled to return to Seoul on Thursday for further consultations based on his discussions in Beijing and Tokyo.
Hill said the United States still believed that the six-nation talks were "the best way to solve this," according to the Associated Press. "But it's also not the only way," he said.
Kwon Jin Ho, the national security adviser for President Roh Moo Hyun of South Korea, said there were "no particular signs" that North Korea was planning a nuclear test. Speaking on South Korea's CBS Radio, he downplayed recent reports that North Korea might be preparing for its first nuclear test.
Besides a possible referral to the Security Council, Washington could also use its American-led Proliferation Security Initiative to target North Korea. The initiative allows participating countries to seize missiles and other potential components of weapons of mass destruction while they are being transferred by sea or by air.
Ban said South Korea, given its sensitive relations with North Korea, was still hesitant about joining the initiative. But he said on Wednesday his government could cooperate on a "case-by-case" basis.