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The issuance on Monday of a joint statement in Beijing by representatives of the six nations that had taken up North Korea’s nuclear-weapons programs has come as relief to those who have been watching the talks with both trepidation and expectation. If the talks had failed, the United States, one of the two main protagonists in the talks with North Korea, probably would have taken the issue to the United Nations Security Council to press for economic sanctions against the North, a move that could have further heightened tensions in East Asia. Although the six nations, which also include China, Japan, South Korea and Russia, have followup work to do, their patience in negotiating has been rewarded so far.

China’s efforts as chair of the talks and the wisdom of the U.S. and Japan in compromising on North Korea’s demand for a light-water nuclear reactor should be noted. As chief U.S. negotiator Mr. Christopher Hill said, “It is a big decision for them, but it is absolutely the right decision for them.” If North Korea has emerged from the talks with the realization that its prosperity does not depend on nuclear weapons but instead on improved relations with other countries, as Mr. Hill also suggested, it will be something to heartily welcome.

In the joint statement, North Korea pledged to abandon its nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and return at an early date to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and to IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) safeguards, while the U.S. made it clear that it has no nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula and has no intention of attacking or invading North Korea with nuclear or conventional weapons.

South Korea reaffirmed its commitment not to receive or deploy nuclear weapons in accordance with the 1992 joint declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and affirmed that nuclear arms do not exist within its territory.

Apart from the nuclear issue, another welcome outcome is that Japan and North agreed to take steps to normalize relations in accordance with the Sept. 17, 2002, Pyongyang Declaration, which had called for an early resumption of normalization talks. It is hoped that both parties will make a serious effort to resolve pending issues such as North Korea’s missile program and the fate of all Japanese nationals believed to have been abducted by North Korean agents in the past.

The path that led to the joint declaration was a rugged one. The six-party talks started in August 2003 in Beijing. The latest meeting was a continuation of the fourth round following a 37-day recess. The first three rounds were fruitless. After the third round, North Korea had refused to resume negotiations. In February 2005, it declared that it possessed nuclear weapons.

By the time the fourth round started in late July, however, a ray of hope had appeared as South Korea offered to provide substantial electric power to North Korea, and the U.S. started referring to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in a respectful manner — a gesture that North Korea had coveted — and repeated assurances that it harbored no hostile intent toward North Korea and respected its sovereignty.

The joint statement says North Korea and the U.S. will commit to a peaceful coexistence and to steps for normalizing relations subject to their bilateral policies. It also refers to South Korea’s reaffirmation of its July 15, 2005, proposal to provide 2 million kilowatts of electric power to North Korea, and to the willingness of the U.S., China, Japan, South Korea and Russia to provide energy assistance to North Korea. In broader terms, the six nations agreed to promote economic cooperation in the fields of energy, trade and investment, bilaterally and multilaterally.

The biggest sticking point in the fourth round was North Korea’s insistence that it had a right to a peaceful nuclear-energy program and its demand that it be furnished with a light-water nuclear reactor. Japan and the U.S. were reluctant to agree, fearing that North Korea would cheat as it did in the past. Apparently both nations made a compromise. In the joint statement, North Korea’s negotiation partners, respecting North Korea’s claim regarding peaceful uses of nuclear energy, agreed to discuss the subject of “providing light-water reactor” (no articles attached) to North Korea at an appropriate time.

The most important achievement is that the six parties have reaffirmed that their goal is the verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner. They will need to make further efforts in the talks set to resume in early November, again in Beijing, to find ways to implement the various pledges agreed on during the latest talks. The most important and difficult issue will be verification of North Korea’s dismantling of its nuclear programs. Patience and wise compromise must be allowed to carry the day again.

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