North Korea has agreed to rejoin the six-party nuclear talks on its nuclear-weapons program before yearend following hard bargaining with the United States and China. The breakthrough resulted from mounting international pressure, especially the U.S. financial crackdown and the United Nations Security Council’s resolution calling for sanctions against the North after its nuclear test Oct. 9.

However, North Korea agreed only to return to the talks — nothing else. There has been no progress in persuading Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear arms and ambitions, an objective that nations participating in the six-party talks agreed to in September 2005.

With missile tests in July and a nuclear test in October, Pyongyang has resorted to brinkmanship to raise the ante in its talks with Washington.

Differing views have emerged over terms for resuming talks. A North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman said Pyongyang has agreed to rejoin the talks in hopes of holding negotiations with Washington on U.S. financial sanctions. The U.S. said it has agreed to negotiate with the North only within a working group to be set up within the framework of the six-party talks and that it has made no commitments with regard to lifting sanctions.

There is little doubt that the North Korean regime of Kim Jong Il has been hard hit by the financial sanctions. The agreement to establish the working group gave Pyongyang a justification for returning to the talks. But negotiations are likely to be difficult.

Washington and Pyongyang also have sharp differences over the UNSC resolution on sanctions. North Korea rejects the resolution, which was supported even by China and Russia. The U.S. condemns the North’s possession of nuclear arms and is determined to push for the implementation of the resolution.

The UNSC’s sanctions committee has given all U.N. member nations a list of materials related to nuclear arms, ballistic missiles, and biological and chemical weapons that are embargoed for export to North Korea. Member nations were obligated to report back to the UNSC by Monday on whether they were implementing the resolution.

By agreeing to rejoin the six-party talks, Pyongyang is likely to be trying to divert UNSC pressure. Furthermore, it is apparently scheming to drive a wedge between hardliners Japan and the U.S. and the more conciliatory China, South Korea and Russia.

South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun, who has been strongly criticized by Japan and the U.S. for his engagement policy toward the North, has failed to change his stance despite the nuclear test. The day after Pyongyang’s agreement to rejoin the six-party talks, Roh announced a Cabinet shakeup, featuring pro-engagement politicians in diplomatic and security portfolios.

In a speech, Roh promised to continue his policy of appeasement, promoting the development of the Mount Kumgang tourist resort and the Kaesong industrial park in North Korea. Seoul was also considering the resumption of rice and fertilizer supplies to the North.

Even more troubling is the likelihood that, as a result of the nuclear test, Pyongyang may believe it has more leverage in negotiations with the U.S. The agreement to create the working group for talks on financial sanctions could be considered a U.S. concession.

North Korea is believed to have begun nuclear-weapons development in the early 1990s after it began feeling isolated on the Korean Peninsula, divided between North and South after World War II — when the U.S.-Soviet Cold War started. After the Cold War ended in 1989, first the Soviet Union and then China normalized relations with South Korea.

In 1994, North Korea signed an “agreed framework” with the U.S. Clinton administration to halt nuclear-weapons development. The North, however, continued to push ahead with its nuclear program. In 2002, it admitted using enriched uranium and, in February 2005, announced it had nuclear weapons.

Japan’s 2006 defense white paper quotes the then-chief of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency as telling the U.S. Congress at the time Kim Jong Il was unlikely to abandon nuclear arms.

North Korea may be hoping to follow the path set by Pakistan and India, which conducted nuclear tests outside the framework of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, despite the threat of U.S. sanctions. Pakistan later was exempted from the sanctions for cooperating with the U.S. in the war against terrorism. And India signed an agreement to cooperate with the U.S. on peaceful uses of atomic energy.

Resumption of the six-party talks should be based on the UNSC resolution and the last joint statement of the participating nations. The resolution demands that North Korea abandon all its nuclear arms and ambitions and return to the NPT regime and the safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency. The North had promised to do so in the joint statement issued last year.

In the statement, the U.S. and Japan also vowed to normalize their relations with North Korea, with the U.S. vowing to respect Pyongyang’s sovereignty and Japan promising to observe the 2002 Pyongyang Declaration.

If Japan and North Korea can normalize diplomatic relations on the basis of a resolution on nuclear-weapons and ballistic-missiles issues, and on the abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents, large-scale economic aid from Tokyo to Pyongyang is possible.

The major question is whether Kim will make a strategic decision to abandon all nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles with the belief that doing so will guarantee the survival of his regime. The fate of the six-party talks, which may yet serve as a peacekeeping mechanism in Northeast Asia, will hinge on whether Kim will make that decision.

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