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Modest Progress Is Noted as North Korea Meetings End

Times Staff Writers

Talks in Beijing aimed at halting North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs closed hours behind schedule this afternoon without a breakthrough, amid reports of a last-minute disagreement over the language of the closing statement.

Among the issues, officials and local news reports said, were the timing of the next meeting and whether to form a working group on the North’s energy shortage. They plan to meet again, but no date for the next round was announced.

Expectations were low going into the meetings involving the United States, the two Koreas, China, Japan and Russia, and the lack of substantive progress was not surprising.

But judged against the incremental nature of most North Korean negotiations, analysts said, the talks produced some modest results, with the group a little closer to the goal of a nuclear-free Korean peninsula than when the first round of talks ended in August.

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At the most basic level, the group stayed in the same room for several days addressing serious issues.

“Just the fact that it didn’t break up in the middle made them comparatively successful,” said Jin Linbo, head of the Asia-Pacific department of the China Institute of International Studies in Beijing.

Beyond that, there was growing acceptance of the need for regular meetings and for documents that bind all parties to minimally acceptable terms, making it more difficult to backslide. Finally, the United States and North Korea remained relatively cordial to each other, despite the yawning gap between their official positions.

China also has made the media a more central part of the talks by setting up a press center and granting a pool of reporters limited access to the proceedings. This puts more pressure on delegates to find common ground and produce results, analysts said.

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As North Korea watchers looked for signs of winners and losers, several said North Korea came away looking more flexible and reasonable, and the United States less so.

“North Korea showed a willingness to freeze its nuclear weapons program and to keep the Korean peninsula free of nuclear weapons,” said Li Dunqiu of the Chinese Society for the Study of Korean History. “The U.S., on the other hand, seemed to have no countermeasures to this show of North Korean flexibility. The problem seemed to lie with the United States.”

Although the open-ended format for this round of talks was reportedly designed to give North Korea as much time as it needed to check back with top leaders in Pyongyang, Assistant Secretary of State James A. Kelly seemed to be on the shorter negotiating leash, some said, clinging to the U.S. mantra that only a “complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement” would justify concessions.

“If the [U.S.] continues its tough stance, it’s not going to get what it wants,” said Shen Dingli, an international affairs expert at Shanghai’s Fudan University.

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A proposal by China, Russia and South Korea to supply Pyongyang with energy aid in return for dismantling its nuclear programs also put added pressure on the U.S., analysts said, by creating a perception that other partners were willing to find creative ways around roadblocks that Washington was not.

North Korea, famous for its dogged, erratic and unreasonable diplomatic style, exceeded very modest expectations. It arrived in Beijing pledging to be “flexible,” announced it was ready to halt all its weapons programs -- the first time it has done so at the bargaining table -- and limited its anti-U.S. vitriol to a single statement on Washington’s “hostile policies.” Whether Pyongyang truly is more flexible is another question, analysts said, but it played to the cameras better.

China also gained points during the meetings, enhancing its role as a growing regional power and a country the United States can work with. As host, it also helped define a middle position, some said.

“China agreed that the goal is a nuclear-free peninsula,” said Pang Zhongying, professor of international relations at Nankai University in Tianjin. “But it also showed that North Korea needs aid, and that the U.S. should also make some compromises.”

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Analysts said another subtle shift seen in these talks was the relative positions of the six parties. In the past, it has generally been a 3-3 split, with Russia, China and North Korea on one side of the divide and the military alliance partners of the United States, Japan and South Korea on the other.

The latest talks suggest the division is now closer to 4-2, Pang said, with South Korea more closely aligned with the former camp, as demonstrated by the energy proposal Seoul crafted with Moscow and Beijing.

Analysts said the apparent growing flexibility of Pyongyang suggests that it is desperate and that its ultimate objective is economic aid, with the nuclear card a means to that end.

“Fundamentally, all sides are trying to figure out the bottom line,” Pang said. “At this point, the U.S. can’t accept a deal because the price tag is still too high.”

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