New sense of optimism surrounds North Korea nuclear talks

Wednesday, February 7th 2007, 6:02 am
By: News On 6

BEIJING (AP) _ International talks on North Korea's nuclear program convene Thursday with a new sense of optimism about the possibility of the first tangible progress on the communist nation's disarmament since negotiations began more than three years ago.

The main U.S. envoy said Wednesday that the first steps on dismantling Pyongyang's nuclear weapons could be agreed upon at this round of meetings in Beijing, though he expected ``hard bargaining.''

Ahead of the six-nation negotiations, the North has also signaled it's satisfied with changes in the United States' attitude, following an apparent greater willingness by all sides to compromise.

The latest nuclear standoff with the North started in late 2002 after Washington accused Pyongyang of having a secret uranium enrichment program in violation of a 1994 deal between the two countries. North Korea kicked out nuclear inspectors and restarted its main reactor, moves that culminated in the country's first atomic test detonation in October.

Although the U.S. and key North Korean allies China and Russia backed U.N. sanctions after the nuclear test, Washington has since engaged in a series of diplomatic overtures that have drawn praise from Pyongyang.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill went to Germany last month to meet North Korean nuclear envoy Kim Kye Gwan, and the North later said the sides had reached an unspecified agreement. The specifics of what they discussed haven't been made public.

Washington has also held separate talks on financial restrictions it has placed on a Macau-based bank where the North held accounts, accusing it of complicity in the regime's alleged counterfeiting and money laundering. Blacklisting that bank has scared off other financial institutions from dealings with the North for fear of losing access to the U.S. market.

The North had earlier demanded the financial restrictions be lifted for it to disarm, and refused to talk about anything else at the last nuclear talks in December.

The lack of progress at the arms negotiations has raised the issue of the credibility of the talks. Since 2003, they have produced only a single agreement in September 2005 on principles for the North to abandon its nuclear program in exchange for aid and pledges that Washington won't seek the regime's ouster.

Negotiators said taking the first steps toward implementing that agreement would be key at this week's talks, which bring together China, Japan, Russia, the United States and the two Koreas.

``The real success will be when we complete the full September '05 statement, not just when we start,'' Hill said after arriving in Beijing. ``We're not going to finish that this week. We'll just maybe take a good first step.''

The U.S. envoy said Washington was ``ready to implement all of the joint statement,'' including economic and energy aid, but declined to give specifics.

Before leaving Tokyo for Beijing, Hill said there were positive signs at the Germany meeting but that he expected ``some rather hard bargaining'' in Beijing.

``This round of the six-party talks could be called a watershed,'' Japan's envoy Kenichiro Sasae told reporters. ``It's important that we take concrete steps.''

A U.S. nuclear expert who met North Korean officials last week in Pyongyang said they were optimistic.

``My sense is that they're willing to go for disarmament, but that it's going to be a very slow process, because of the lack of trust of the United States,'' David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, said Tuesday.

The White House is keen to prove it isn't recreating Washington's 1994 deal with North Korea made under former President Clinton that the Bush administration has harshly criticized for its failure to hold the North accountable.

Seeking to stem such criticism, Hill emphasized Wednesday that a new disarmament plan would be different from the 1994 U.S.-North Korea pact because it would include other regional powers.

No end date has been set for this round of talks, but Hill said the Chinese hosts expected the talks to last a few days and the sides would start reviewing a draft agreement Friday.