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U.S., North Korea Butt Heads on Disarming

Times Staff Writers

After an opening series of conciliatory statements at six-party talks aimed at ending North Korea’s nuclear program, Pyongyang and Washington began airing their differences Wednesday, reportedly disagreeing over a U.S.-proposed disarmament plan and even about the meaning of “denuclearizing” the Korean peninsula.

American negotiators said they were not surprised by Pyongyang’s tough position on the U.S. plan, first presented at the last round of talks in June 2004, which would require North Korea to disclose all its nuclear weapons systems, agree to international monitoring and begin demobilizing its most dangerous weapons within a three-month period.

In return, it would receive immediate shipments of fuel oil from Japan, South Korea and other nations and an interim U.S. pledge not to attack. Later, North Korea would have to dismantle its nuclear weapons program and allow international monitoring in return for aid, diplomatic recognition and a more permanent security agreement.

This was North Korea’s first official response to the proposal.

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“They were not entirely satisfied by it and had some concerns about the sequencing of obligations, feeling their obligations were front-loaded and the obligations of the other parties were back-loaded,” said a senior U.S. official in Beijing who briefed reporters on the negotiations.

The two sides also reportedly failed to reach consensus on specifically what types of nuclear programs North Korea has, and precisely what “denuclearizing” the Korean peninsula means -- a goal both sides have endorsed.

The Americans contend that North Korea’s nuclear activities include a uranium enrichment program in addition to a plutonium program, but the North has denied having a uranium program.

The U.S. says “denuclearizing” must include uranium programs.

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“We did not achieve an agreement with them on that but we did agree to keep talking about it,” the U.S. official said.

The North Koreans have reportedly said that denuclearization means the entire Korean peninsula has to be free of nuclear weapons, including South Korea. Seoul and Washington have stated that all nuclear weapons were removed from South Korea in the 1990s. But the North is concerned about the South’s alliance with the United States and its protection under Washington’s “nuclear umbrella.”

U.S. officials said they did not want to discuss Washington’s security guarantee with South Korea, known as the R.O.K.-U.S. alliance.

“We don’t want to get into issues that are not in the purview of the six-party talks,” the U.S. official said.

Still, the American delegation tried to remain positive.

“I don’t see us having a problem in terms of defining denuclearization,” the U.S. official said. “This is not to say we have an identity of views on what it means by denuclearization. [North Korea] has a broader concept of it than we do.”

Analysts in South Korea said the latest reports from the Beijing meetings confirmed that the gap between the two sides had not yet narrowed.

What is less clear, they said, is whether North Korea is insisting on full diplomatic relations with the United States before giving up its nuclear programs.

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From Pyongyang’s perspective, analysts said, that would include a peace agreement with the United States, withdrawal of U.S. troops stationed in South Korea and the dismantling of the U.S.-South Korean military alliance.

“So far, North Korea used the language of ‘elimination of hostile policy toward North Korea’ as a precondition,” said Kim Tae Woo, a nuclear expert at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, a government-affiliated think tank in Seoul. “That means North Korea wants comprehensive guarantees,” or full diplomatic relations.

Neither Kim nor other analysts in South Korea think that’s a realistic goal at this round of talks. But Choi Jin Wook, a North Korea expert at the nonprofit research group Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, said “it is still a question” how seriously the North was pushing the issue this time.

Around the edges of the talks, analysts did see some positive signals, noting that the head of the U.S. delegation, Christopher Hill, referred to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il by the title “chairman.”

“I think North Korea will gladly take that,” Choi said.

After two straight days of one-on-one talks between the U.S. and North Korean delegations, the two parties did not meet directly Wednesday. Instead, talks were held among all six parties, which also include South Korea, China, Russia and Japan.

In those discussions, the participants staked their respective positions. Now, they are trying to work on drafting a set of “agreed principles” to narrow the scope of issues and lay out an eventual schedule for negotiation of an overall agreement.

“Our focus was to try to develop a consensus among the parties as to what elements should go into a statement of agreed principles,” the U.S. official said.

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According to Reuters news agency, a South Korean official said Seoul had proposed that the six adopt a joint document setting out two “pillars” or matching promises without specifying the sequence of events -- which might help bridge the gulf between Washington and Pyongyang.

Today, Hill and the North Korea delegate held their third one-on-one meeting before a planned session including all the heads of delegations at the talks, the U.S. Embassy said. No details were immediately available.

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Ni reported from Beijing and Lee from Seoul.


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