6-Way Talks on Korea Are on Fragile Ground
BEIJING — Six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program that opened Tuesday could make substantial headway if the Bush administration abandons all thoughts of “regime change” in Pyongyang and instead provides security guarantees and economic aid, Chinese experts say. But if the administration continues demanding complete, irreversible and verifiable dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear program without simultaneous concessions, the result could be a polarizing confrontation in East Asia in which Pyongyang continues to produce nuclear weapons, the experts say. China is in an unusual position in the talks as host, participant and close friend of North Korea – indeed, its chief outside supplier of power – as well as go-between for Washington and Pyongyang. Many Chinese experts say the hope for significant progress at the talks, which also involve Japan, Russia and South Korea, lies with the United States, saying North Korea is eager for a deal. In three previous rounds, the United States “didn’t really make a great effort to find a solution,” a leading arms control expert at a Chinese government think tank said. In actual fact, U.S. statements calling North Korea part of the “axis of evil” or an “outpost of tyranny” and denouncing Kim Jong Il as a tyrant have soured previous rounds of discussion. “We do hope the Bush administration will make up its mind and reach a deal with North Korea. At this moment, I am not sure the administration has reached a consensus among themselves,” said the expert, who spoke with government permission but on condition he not be identified. He noted that the administration had made several moves in the right direction but had then confused matters by saying U.S. policy would not change. Moreover, this expert said he had seen no sign of a detailed or comprehensive U.S. plan for the talks. “In my opinion, the United States is responsible for the situation today,” said Chen Fengjun, director of the Center for Korean Peninsula Study at Beijing University’s School for International Studies. “North Korea is more eager to solve the problem than the United States.”Hoping for progress toward a denuclearized Korean peninsula, China sent senior official Tang Jiaxuan to Pyongyang and then Washington just days after North Korea agreed to resume the talks following a yearlong standoff. The United States has also expressed hope for substantial progress in this round, which could last up to a month, and U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill held a first informal meeting Monday with his North Korean counterpart, Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan. Chinese experts laid out three possible scenarios for the outcome, based on their assumption that North Korea has as many as six to eight primitive nuclear devices but that they were developed mainly as a bargaining chip. “If you want to be a nuclear state, you would do it secretly, quietly. But North Korea has made this an issue to attract the attention of the United States,” said the Chinese arms control expert. The best result that could emerge at this point, the Chinese experts say, is a partial settlement: for North Korea to freeze manufacture of nuclear weapons and to allow international inspections, with the U.S. simultaneously agreeing to recognize the North Korean regime and provide security assurances. Washington would have to offer a second chance to North Korea, which expelled international inspectors once before. As relations improved with the United States, Chinese experts suggested that North Korea would dismantle its stockpile, which U.S. intelligence assesses at around a half-dozen nuclear weapons. A second possibility is continuing stalemate, fueled, the experts here say, by a conviction among many U.S. conservatives that North Korea will collapse unless the United States comes to the rescue. However, “If this round fails, the six-party talks will be over,” predicted Shi Yinhong, director of the Center for American Studies at the People’s University of China. The third possibility, and from Chinese perspective most worrisome, is a U.S.-North Korean confrontation. Under a plan that the U.S. has outlined to Chinese officials as a worst-case scenario, the U.S. would mount a naval blockade around North Korea. China would not interfere with the blockade but would “continue sending food, oil, and electricity to North Korea, and North Korea will have time gradually to improve its nuclear weapons,” predicted Shi Yinhong. Confrontation would put enormous strains on U.S. relations with its Seoul ally. “If the crisis continues, it will threaten the South Korean economy and stability,” said Piao Jianyi, executive director of the Center for Korean Peninsula Issues Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Already, several experts here point out, South Korea and China have practically an identical outlook on how to proceed in the negotiations, and U.S.-South Korean relations are difficult. Non-Chinese observers agree. Relations between Washington and Seoul are “extremely strained, despite public protestations to the contrary,” said Peter Beck, Seoul-based representative of the International Crisis Group, a nonpartisan think tank. South Korea’s position in the six-party talks is closer to China’s than to the United States’. “If the talks break down and push comes to shove, I don’t think South Korea is prepared to support the coercive measures that Washington would seek to impose. This will further strain the alliance and make the nuclear issue more difficult to solve,” he said. This is because for Seoul, “peace comes before all else,” while Beck believes Washington apparently “is willing to risk war” to stop the North’s nuclear program.