Six-party talks in jeopardy after blast

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 September, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 September, 2004, 12:00am

Seoul's admission about nuclear experiments adds to uncertainty

The next round of six-party talks has been thrown into uncertainty by two startling events on the korean Peninsula: the huge explosion in North Korea last week and South Korea's admission about secret nuclear experiments, analysts say.

In an effort to salvage the talks, senior Communist Party leader Li Changchun personally delivered a message to Pyongyang at the weekend. It was from President Hu Jintao, urging close co-operation between the two countries in regional and international affairs.

Mr Li's visit came after North Korea refused to attend a working group meeting last month, citing American hostility in mounting a military exercise. Pyongyang and Washington have also traded insults recently.

Adding to the cloud of uncertainty was South Korea's admission that it had secretly produced small quantities of plutonium and enriched uranium, and the mysterious explosion in a mountainous area in North Korea near the Chinese border, last Thursday.

Pyongyang said it was part of a hydroelectric project, and US officials said they doubted the blast was a nuclear test. On the mainland, the media was silent on the explosion and analysts were wary of commenting on the record before the facts could be established.

But analysts said the recent developments on the peninsula had profoundly changed the basic assumptions of the six-party talks.

The US has insisted North Korea should not have nuclear programmes, including nuclear energy and reprocessing spent fuel rods for weapons-grade plutonium. But the US and Japan attached little importance to South Korea's admission that its scientists had secretly produced weapons-grade materials, an analyst noted.

'The South Korean government was disingenuous when it claimed to have no knowledge of the experiment. It deepened the distrust among participants in the six-party talks.'

North Korea said the admission by Seoul made it more determined to continue with its nuclear arms programme. 'When North Korea becomes a nuclear power the ground rules for the talks will be changed,' an analyst said.

For China, that prospect is troubling as North Korea's example could hasten the development of nuclear programmes in South Korea, Japan and even Taiwan.

The failure of six-party talks would also be a blow to China's efforts to become a mediator in regional security issues.

'The challenge now is to convince the parties that keeping the mechanism is more important than achieving measurable results,' the analyst said.