Nuclear reaction

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 July, 2007, 12:00am

The six-party talks on the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula resume today in Beijing after a four-month hiatus, caused principally by the excruciatingly slow process of returning US$25 million in North Korean funds frozen in a Macau bank.

The signs are good that, at long last, all the commitments made in the first phase of the agreement are being carried out, including the dispatch of heavy fuel oil to the North by South Korea.

At the weekend, North Korea declared that it had shut down the Yongbyon nuclear reactor and, on Monday, inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency in Pyongyang confirmed the shutdown. They will remain in North Korea to monitor the facility to ensure that it is not reactivated.

The talks are now expected to move into their next phase, which is likely to be more difficult. They will entail the disclosure by North Korea of all its nuclear weapons programmes and their abandonment.

Just how difficult the next phase could be was indicated in a surprising statement issued Friday by North Korea in the name of the 'chief of the Panmunjom Mission of the Korean People's Army'.

In the statement, the North Korean military asserted that unless Washington stopped applying pressure on the country and stopped staging military exercises with South Korea, the North would have no option but to develop its 'retaliatory strike' capability. In that event, it said, 'neither the implementation of the February 13 agreement nor success of the six-party talks will be possible'.

It is not clear if the statement reflects a rift within the North Korean leadership. The North Korean Foreign Ministry seems to be taking a different line, offering to disable its nuclear programme on condition Washington lifts economic sanctions and removes North Korea from a list of states that sponsor terrorism.

If there is a split in the North Korean leadership, it could make negotiations even more complicated.

Washington has dramatically changed its North Korea policy in recent months, desisting from such acts as calling it part of an 'Axis of evil' or an 'outpost of tyranny'.

Also, Christopher Hill, the American official responsible for the six-party talks, last month made a surprise visit to Pyongyang.

Japan, however, is still insisting that it will not contribute any aid to North Korea until the issue of its citizens abducted by Pyongyang is resolved. There are signs that other parties to the talks may lose patience with Tokyo's insistence on injecting an extraneous issue into these discussions.

The provision that North Korea must disclose all of its nuclear programmes before abandoning them may be difficult to implement.

The North Koreans have publicly denied having such a programme, and how they handle this issue in the latest session of the six-party talks may provide an indication as to whether these discussions will be fruitful.

Another sign of progress would be agreement by all parties for the resumption of meetings by the five working groups set up under the February 13 agreement.

The North Koreans are interested in normalising their relationship with the US and Japan, the two largest economies in the world, as part of their effort to join the international community.

The US wants the North's nuclear facilities to be completely disabled by the end of the year. The goal at the end of the process is the establishment of a permanent peace and security regime in Northeast Asia.

The next two days will show whether the two sides can reach agreement on the sequencing of actions so that each side's hopes will be realised, leading ultimately to the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula and the formal ending of the Korean war.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator