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Six-party talks – but no party in sight, and no champagne yet

Updated On: Dec 22, 2006

There is a sense of déjà vu.  Another round of six-party talks, except that this time, North Korea declares itself a nuclear power and expects to be treated as one.

It seemed to be more of the same, yet, the nuclear power demonstrated by Pyongyang’s successful test on 9 October 2006 makes it all the more different. We’ve heard it before – the accent on long-term perspectives on the North Korean issue. "We think these discussions are a good opportunity for us to have an initial exchange of views," Daniel Glaser, the US Treasury Department's deputy assistant secretary for terrorist financing and financial crimes said. "If these talks are to be really productive it has to be a long-term process by which we all work to address the underlying concerns we have expressed in the past."

Despite the same issues being re-circulated, there are some differences this time round, other than the glaring nuclear status of North Korea. In the past, USintervention in the freezing of bank accounts is often amorphously covered in the international media as a simple freezing of assets belonging to the regime. This time it is personal. It is now widely circulated that US$24 million belonging to North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il and other members of his ruling elite have been frozen under US allegations of counterfeiting and money laundering. Other than demands to lift such asset controls, Pyongyang also wants UN sanctions against North Korea to be removed in addition to provision of assistance for its civilian nuclear use.

In terms of negotiation formats, there appears to be some modifications as well. The US who had eschewed bilateral talks now acquiesced and agreed to hold bilateral talks with North Korea, particularly on the issue financial embargo.

However, such allowances in format flexibility do not apply to other parties in the talks. Japan's chief negotiator Kenichiro Sasae said Japan's delegation is the only one with which North Korea has not held bilateral meetings. It is not known if this was a matter of policy on the part of Pyongyang or an inability to align the schedules of both sides for a meeting. Some argue that this impasse may be an outcome of Japan’s repeated demands for the inclusion of the issue of Japanese abductees in the six-party talks. This is an issue that North Korea consistently refuses to do, and makes it known vehemently through its official Korea Central News Agency.

Nevertheless, the Japanese side is determined to seek bilateral talks with the North Koreans. ``We're not closing the window on the opportunity,'' Sasae said. Japanese desire for bilaterals with Pyongyang is strongly supported by the US. Christopher Hill who declared: "These normalization processes depend on a discussion of ongoing issues, and clearly the Japanese have some issues that need to be addressed. It's our fervent hope that there can be a bilateral meeting between the DPRK and the Japanese aimed at addressing their issues."

In the final analysis, this round of talks seems to show a strengthening convergence of positions on a non-nuclear Korean Peninsula. Conservatives from the US andJapan are arguing for a strong position on a de-nuclearized Pyongyang. Former US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, for example, wrote in a Yomiuri editorial that he applauded Japanese PM Abe’s visit to Beijing to shore up support for a united stance vis-à-vis North Korea and to reverse past few years’ of Sino-Japanese animosities. Perhaps, it is working. Interestingly, China seems to be going along with this position of a hard stance of denuclearization. "Under no circumstance should the aim of pursuing a nuclear-weapon-free Korean Peninsula be lost from view, nor should our confidence and determination to find a peaceful solution to the issue," spokeswoman of Chinese delegation to the six-party talks Jiang Yu said.

Sources:

US, North Korea meet directly as nuclear talks enter crucial phase (Channelnewsasia, 20 December 2006)

North Korea, US begin talks on financial sanctions (Channelnewsasia, 20 December 2006)

North Korea wears US patience (ABC News, 19 December 2006)

China says it supports contact, dialogue between DPRKU.S. (People’s Daily, 19 December 2006)

First-day of resumed Korean nuke talks "candid", "pragmatic": Chinese spokesperson (People’s Daily 19 December 2006)

Six-party nuclear talks resume amid cautious expectations (People’s Daily, 19 December 2006)

North Korea Talks Must Be `Substantive,' Hill Says (Bloomberg, 19 December 2006)

Stay focused on achieving nonnuclear North Korea (Yomiuri, 18 December 2006)