North Korea, reportedly close to restoring the plant that supplies it nuclear bomb material, said today it was ready to return to international negotiations on its weapons programme but first wanted talks with Washington.
Pyongyang made the offer during a high profile visit by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, largely repeating its long-held contention that the United States is central to any decision to abandon its attempt to become a nuclear weapons power, Reuters reports.
“The hostile relations between the DPRK (North Korea) and the United States should be converted into peaceful ties through the bilateral talks without fail,” North Korea’s KCNA news agency quoted leader Kim Jong-il as saying during a meeting with Wen.
“We expressed our readiness to hold multilateral talks, depending on the outcome of the DPRK-US talks. The six-party talks are also included in the multilateral talks.”
One analyst said it boiled down to impoverished North Korea needing an end to its pariah status which is largely in US hands and Washington wanting to be certain Pyongyang will not sell any nuclear weaponry abroad.
“North Korea wants sanctions removed. What the United States wants is some assurance about proliferation because the US doesn’t really care about restoration of an obsolete nuclear plant or how much nuclear material the North has got,” said Cho Min of the Korea Institute of National Unification.
He said the focus was now on whether Washington sends an official, possibly special envoy Stephen Bosworth, to the North.
The US government has said it is open to direct talks with the North to coax it back to six party nuclear talks with the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States.
One new element is the apparent willingness by the North to return to the six-party talks to end its nuclear weapons development and which it walked away from late last year, repeatedly calling the format dead.
The North’s chief source of material to build a bomb has been its Yongbyon facilities which it had agreed to dismantle during six-party talks but later said it would restore, accusing the United States of planning to attack it.
“We have obtained indications that point to restoration work being in the final stages,” an unnamed South Korean government source was quoted by Yonhap news agency as saying.
North Korea argues that it is US hostility, and the 28 000 US troops stationed in South Korea, that is pushing it towards building a nuclear arsenal.
It has long sought direct dealing with the United States, in part to agree a formal peace treaty to the 1950-53 Korean War and gain full diplomatic relations, which would in turn give the economically broken state access to international financial aid.
The US administration is under pressure to come up with a new tack in dealing with the reclusive North which has for years played cat and mouse in negotiations with the international community and never given up trying to build a nuclear arsenal.
“An affective American strategy towards North Korea will require a combination of tough measures with serious dialogue and engagement,” Joel Wit, an academic and former US State Department official working on North Korea, wrote in a report.
He warned that a policy of containment and isolation would only concede that North Korea will further develop its nuclear weapons programme.
“That, in turn, will undermine stability in East Asia, sow doubts in Tokyo and Seoul about relying too much on the United States for their security and jeopardise cooperation with China,” the report said.
The visit by the Chinese premier has been a major boost for Kim, increasingly isolated from the international community for nuclear and missile tests earlier this year and facing tougher sanctions which analysts say damage its weapons trade, one of the economy’s few major sources of income.
“There is no doubt that Wen delivered a very clear cut message, China wanted to give a push which has been fruitful so far. But you can also understand that North Korea will not just compromise very substantially after just one visit because it is not their style,” said Zhu Feng, professor of international security at Peking University.
“The key question is not just how to bring them back to the negotiating table but also how to change their behaviour that’s why my interpretation of Wen’s visit is that he delivered a clear cut message and gave North Korea a very timely push, you can’t always hesitate, you can’t always fool around, you can’t always just play tricks otherwise time is running out and the effects will be very negative for North Korea.”
Pic: Nuclear blast