Negotiators have begun the fifth round of six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program. There were high hopes for progress after the fourth round produced a joint statement agreed on by all parties. Whatever momentum existed was quickly lost, however, when the discussions stalemated and broke off after three days. The break was planned — representatives needed to join their leaders at the APEC Leaders Summit held this week in Pusan, South Korea. Hopefully, the negotiators will return to the talks with new instructions and a new will to find common ground. Failure to move the negotiations forward will raise serious — if not fatal — questions about the utility of the six-party format.

On Sept. 19, the six parties agreed on a framework for negotiations. It took four rounds of talks to acknowledge that the goal of the negotiations is “the verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner” and that North Korea would receive aid, assistance and diplomatic recognition in exchange for eliminating its nuclear program. In addition, the parties agreed to take action “in a phased manner in line with the principle of ‘commitment for commitment, action for action.’ “

That broad framework is only a start. The parties still have to devise a road map to guide its implementation. No one should have expected substantial progress toward that goal in the three days of talks that were held last week. But, it was not unrealistic to expect the talks to resume in a positive atmosphere. Unfortunately, even that appears to have been too much to ask.

Rather than beginning in a cooperative manner, North Korea appears to have dug in its heels and demanded the provision of a nuclear reactor before it begins dismantling its own nuclear programs. The United States, backed by the other four parties, rejected that demand out of hand. Instead, the U.S. noted that the North continues to run its reactor at Yongbyon, generating yet more plutonium, and demanded that it should be stopped immediately. The continued production of plutonium does seem to be at odds with a commitment to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. Predictably, however, the North rejected that demand, arguing that the “action for action” principle requires both sides to act simultaneously.

Those two questions — who goes first and does what, and whether the North get civilian nuclear reactors — have bedeviled the talks since their inception. But the North Koreans introduced another issue into last week’s negotiations. They are incensed by the U.S. decision last month to impose sanctions on eight North Korean companies accused of trafficking in the technology for weapons of mass destruction. Especially painful was the application of sanctions against Banco Delta Asia SARL, a Macau bank that worked with North Korean companies for 20 years; the U.S. charged that the bank helped Pyongyang launder money gained from illicit activities such as drug trafficking and counterfeiting U.S. currency. North Korean negotiators argued that the sanctions violate the Sept. 19 Joint Statement and the allegations blacken the North’s name. U.S. President George W. Bush’s reference to North Korean Leader Kim Jong Il as “a tyrant” also contributed to the tense atmosphere that dominated last week’s meetings.

It is perhaps fortunate then that the meeting was supposed to adjourn after just three days. China released another chairman’s statement, which characterized the talks as “serious, pragmatic and constructive” and reiterated the commitments of the Sept. 19 statement. Notably, for the first time, the statement did not pin down a definite date for the resumption of talks; instead, it merely said discussions will resume “at the earliest possible date.” It is anticipated that the talks will not begin until after the New Year, given the holidays and other scheduling commitments.

Sadly, the Japanese proposal to set up three working groups to deal with the various issues — North Korean’s abandonment of its nuclear programs and verification, economic and energy aid to the North, and bilateral issues and cooperation for achieving regional security — seems to have been set aside. Tokyo’s initiative may have been premature, but the logic of the proposal and the desire to set a timetable for progress are compelling.

Japan’s own bilateral negotiations with North Korea concluded Nov. 4 after two days with an agreement to proceed with working-level discussions. There are few tangible signs of progress, but the atmosphere appears to be improving. That may not seem like much, but, as the talks in Beijing prove, when dealing with North Korea that is significant. After five rounds of talks, however, much more must be expected — especially given the stakes.

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