December 17, 2006 in Nation/World

North Korea returning to six-nation talks

Mark Magnier Los Angeles Times

BEIJING – After a 13-month boycott, a nuclear test and much posturing, North Korea returns Monday to six-nation negotiations that have yielded few results and resume with few expectations.

An important focus for early jostling will be timing and deadlines, analysts said. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has called on the North to dismantle its nuclear weapons program within two years in exchange for aid, energy assistance and improved relations.

North Korea has an interest in avoiding a quick resolution. The longer the regime keeps its nuclear program intact, the more likely the world is to accept its status as a member of the nuclear club, as Pakistan and India discovered. Extending talks beyond the 2008 U.S. elections also may bring a new administration that, from the North’s perspective, would be an easier negotiating partner.

As always, however, each side will be looking over its own shoulder. While the United States and the other four nations involved in the talks – China, South Korea, Japan and Russia – favor quick results, they don’t want to push North Korea so hard that it walks off.

The last time the regime in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, left negotiations in a huff, the dispute led to its testing Oct. 9 of what experts believe was a relatively small nuclear device – probably less than 1 kiloton, or about 7 percent of the explosive capability of the 1945 Hiroshima bomb. Another breakdown in the talks could lead to a second test.

North Korea has an interest in producing a second, more powerful and technologically sophisticated explosion. Such a test would not only bolster North Korea’s deterrence against an attack but also would raise the weapons programs value as a bargaining chip, offering the North hope that other countries will pay it more to disband the program.

A key short-term reason North Korea returned to the talks was likely various carrots and sticks that China quietly offered its neighbor, calling into question how motivated North Korea is to affect real progress.

In recent weeks there has been some narrowing of the enormous gap between the United States and North Korea.

After long insisting that the administration would not hold direct talks with North Korea, chief U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill met with his North Korean counterpart on Nov. 28. The three-way talks also involved Beijing, but Chinese officials left the two alone for substantial periods of time.

“So in effect, the United States was talking directly with North Korea,” said Shi Yuanhua, deputy director of the Center for Korean Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai. “The Americans have made their greatest compromise so far.”

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