| Heads of six delegations shake hands before the start of talks on North Korea’s nuclear programme in Beijing. (Reuters)
Beijing, Aug. 27 (Reuters): After months of threats and rhetoric, the US and North Korea sat down today for nuclear crisis talks with the communist state’s neighbours, and even made time for a bilateral meeting on the side.
There was no sign of any early diplomatic progress. One Japanese press report said the US had rejected beleaguered North Korea’s key pre-condition — that the two countries sign a non-aggression treaty.
South Korea said US assistant secretary of state James Kelly held informal talks with vice-foreign minister Kim Yong-il of North Korea, whose half-declared desire to become a nuclear power triggered the crisis in the region.
By the end of the day, though, Russia, like China a traditional friend of the reclusive and impoverished North, was talking about blockage. “So far, the countries have put forward several preliminary demands regarding each other, which are blocking the development of these talks,” said deputy foreign minister Alexander Losyukov, quoted by Russia’s Itar-Tass news agency.
Host China put a more positive spin on the first day, describing it a success. “I heard talks this morning and this afternoon were very successful,” foreign minister Li Zhaoxing said during a reception later.
“I congratulate you. This also implies everybody reached an important consensus and that is everybody hopes the Korean peninsula will be stable, peaceful and de-nuclearised.”
China appealed for restraint before the six countries took their places at a specially chosen hexagonal table in Beijing’s Diaoyutai state guest house, scene down the centuries of palace intrigues and secretive communist plots. It conjured up a group handshake when its chief negotiator pulled together his counterparts from North Korea, the US, Japan, South Korea and Russia before the three-day meeting began.
North Korea reminded the world in an unusually mild newspaper editorial of its core demand for a US security guarantee.
But Tass, quoting a source at the talks, said the north’s chief delegate later told the meeting it had neither nuclear weapons nor plans to develop them, but would develop “more powerful deterrence” if its demands were not met.
Japan, within range of North Korean planes and missiles and the only country in the world to have suffered a nuclear attack, made no bones about where it stood, insisting that Pyongyang must not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons.
But Wi Sung-lac, deputy head of the South Korean delegation, said the heads of the US and North Korean delegations found time to talk. “The US and North Korea freely held bilateral talks in the meeting room,” Wi said, adding that they did not leave the main room where the formal discussions were taking place and chatted on a sofa.
“The talks lasted about 30 or 40 minutes,” he said.
The negotiators smiled and looked relaxed as they went into their first session. Chinese negotiator Wang Yi said the talks marked a new beginning.
But there was little indication of how the six countries would bridge the gaps as delegations staked out their positions.
In 2002 the US branded impoverished North Korea, which relies on foreign aid to keep its economy afloat, part of an “axis of evil” along with Iraq and Iran.
The US, which says North Korea may already have one or two nuclear weapons, is looking for a commitment that Pyongyang will scrap its programme. North Korea wants security guarantees before dismantling. Japan’s Kyodo news agency, quoting Japanese officials, reported that the US had rejected Pyongyang’s insistent call for a bilateral security pact.
This came as no great surprise. US officials have often said they are not interested in a formal non-aggression treaty but would find a way to assure North Korea they have no plans to attack once Pyongyang had listed all its nuclear facilities, allowed site inspections and rejoined the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
US assistant secretary of state James Kelly, described as being in “listening mode”, is not authorised to reply to the North Koreans, who had red, flag-shaped pins with images of their late “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung above their suit breast pockets.
His North Korean opposite number will have scant power beyond relaying the stand of reclusive leader Kim Jong-il.
China, keen the dispute should not boil into a destabilising conflict at its back door, says North Korean security concerns should be addressed and called for level heads and restraint.
In that spirit, Beijing placed closest together the parties whose positions stand furthest apart.