The big thaw
For over a decade, attempts to find conciliation on the Korean Peninsula have been bedevilled by one obstacle after another. Then suddenly, this month, we saw breakthroughs. First, North Korea committed itself to disabling its nuclear facilities by the end of the year, and giving a full account of its nuclear programmes. The next day, Pyongyang and Seoul jointly declared that they were determined to forge a reconciliation.
Serious problems remain to be worked out. North Korea is demanding two light-water reactors promised by the Clinton administration. Then Pyongyang's small arsenal of nuclear weapons must be dealt with. Even so, it's encouraging that the North is willing to disable its Yongbyon nuclear facilities and make a 'complete and correct declaration of all its nuclear programmes' by the end of the year.
Especially significant is the provision, made apparently at Pyongyang's suggestion, that the United States should lead the disablement work at Yongbyon. That should go far to convince the US Congress that the nuclear programme has, indeed, been disabled rather than merely suspended.
The recent resignation of Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe and his replacement by Yasuo Fukuda also bodes well for the six-party talks. Unlike his predecessor, Mr Fukuda is unlikely to hold the talks hostage to progress on the issue of Japanese abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s - although Tokyo extended its abduction-related sanctions against Pyongyang this week.
The progress made at last week's North-South summit should be seen as supplementing the six-party breakthrough rather than attempting to pre-empt it. The declaration issued by the two leaders - North Korea's Kim Jong-il and the South's President Roh Moo-hyun - said as much: both Koreas would work together to implement the agreements reached at the six-party talks.
Mr Roh's participation in the summit talks may have been prompted by domestic political factors: namely, helping his party's candidate in the December presidential election. Even so, the agreements reached, if implemented, will build confidence.
They are likely to reduce tensions between the North and South, helping pave the way to the resolution of the issues still facing the six-party talks in Beijing.
The latest six-party agreement stems from a breakthrough achieved in 2005, when the six parties - North and South Korea, the United States, China, Japan and Russia - issued a joint statement on the resolution of the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula. That statement also called for a permanent 'peace regime' to replace the 1953 armistice.
Washington takes the view that a permanent peace deal must await the complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula. But, in their joint declaration, Seoul and Pyongyang said they would push ahead with convening a meeting of 'the three or four parties directly concerned ... to declare an end to the war'.
The words 'three or four parties directly concerned' are intriguing, suggesting Beijing may not be included in such a peace conference. North and South Korea appear to be thinking that they and Washington might be the only participants. South Korean officials have said that Seoul and Pyongyang would decide whether Beijing would be involved, and that disarmament measures need only be decided by the two Koreas and the US.
Any attempt to exclude Beijing, however, will fail. China was a signatory to the armistice, along with North Korea and the United Nations Command, represented by the United States.
South Korea was not a signatory, which is why the North has argued in the past that Seoul was not entitled to participate in a peace conference.
But now that so much water has flowed under the bridge, it would be unrealistic for any party to seek to exclude any other. North and South Korea, the US and China should all be represented.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator