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Korea: The hexagon of uncertainty
By Francesco Sisci

BEIJING - North Korea has managed to pull another rabbit out of its hat - threatening the world with the test of a nuclear bomb, while holding multilateral talks and listening to what the United States had to offer.

In fact there were two distinct aspects to the Six-Way Talks that wound up in Beijing on Friday: on the one hand Pyongyang has fired out its usual incendiary rhetoric, claiming it will never surrender and daring the South Korean navy with trespasses of the sea border; on the other hand it has backed away from its former positions, in two key areas. Whereas it had insisted for months that it wanted bilateral talks with the US, it has bowed to the US wish for multilateral talks. And whereas it had insisted on a non-aggression treaty with the US as a prelude to any talks, its delegates have just spent three days in Beijing without any such agreement.

The North Korean party attending the talks most probably could not make decisions, but was simply ordered to sound out the offers put on the hexagonal table and then report back to the leadership sitting in Pyongyang.

On Friday, the Chinese, who organized and hosted the meeting, said North Korea was willing to give up its nuclear plans. Furthermore, Vice Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the six parties had reached a six-point consensus on the nuclear issue:
  • The nuclear issue must be resolved through peaceful means and dialogue. The parties stressed that stability and long-term peace should be maintained on the Korean Peninsula.
  • While the Korean Peninsula should be free of nuclear weapons, the security concerns of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea should also be taken into consideration.
  • An overall plan to resolve the nuclear issue in a just and reasonable manner is to be explored.
  • In the process of negotiations, any action that might aggravate the situation should be avoided.
  • Dialogue should continue to establish trust, reduce differences and broaden common ground.
  • The six-party talks should continue, and their specific date and venue should be decided through diplomatic channels as soon as possible.

    Wang said that the six-point consensus demonstrated the spirit of understanding and cooperation and laid a solid and necessary foundation for the next round of talks. China is keen on continuing to host the talks, and Wang said a new round could be held in Beijing within two months.

    That would be shortly before the long, cold winter grips Pyongyang, a time when North Korea will be more than ever in need of aid from abroad and especially from China.

    It could also be the time when the US, its patience with North Korea at an end, pulls the plug. With China's support, it could reduce or cut off the aid that is keeping the Pyongyang regime afloat. It would be a risky move, as it could prompt a sharp reaction from Pyongyang. But if carefully calibrated, a temporary interruption of aid could make itself felt in North Korea without totally disrupting it.

    The problem is the timing. Right now the US, its hands full with the Iraq and Afghanistan problems, has no interest in getting involved in the thorny North Korean issue. But if after two months the Iraq situation has improved, and say Saddam Hussein has been apprehended, freeing up the Americans to act elsewhere; if President George W Bush's opinion polls have kept on sliding; and if Pyongyang has gone on incensing the US public with nuclear threats, then some hawks in the administration could wish to confront North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. There are many "ifs" in this story, proving the extreme fluidity, and thus volatility, of the situation.

    The great stabilizing factor so far has been China, which has gone out of its way to push for a peaceful solution. If this ultimately succeeds, then China could aim at a real strategic partnership with the US in the region. But even if peace fails to be achieved, China has much to gain in sticking on the US side. In recent years it has been argued that China made a gross mistake when it sided against the US in the Korean War in 1950. Beijing does not want to repeat that error.

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    Aug 30, 2003

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