South sceptical of North Korea pledges

When the six-party talks on the denuclearisation of North Korea ended last week, there was plenty of scepticism in neighbouring South Korea: to what extent can the reneging North be trusted to keep its pledges and promises in the future? The talks in Beijing — involving Japan, China, the US, Russia and the two Koreas — failed to set a firm deadline on “disabling” Pyongyang’s nuclear facilities because of continued demands for political and economic concessions. As the English-language daily Korea Times predicted in its editorial, days before the talks, “the ongoing negotiations might face some hurdles, if not serious, as North Korea is expected to ask for more concessions, including more economic aid and diplomatic rewards from the US, South Korea and other countries.”

North Korea’s demands include its removal from the US State Department’s list of countries “sponsoring terrorism” and the establishment of diplomatic relations with the US. At a press conference in Washington on Monday, Christopher

R Hill, head of the US delegation, told reporters: “What we agreed to do with them was to begin the discussion we began in New York when we had our first working group meeting.” “And we discussed some of the reasons they’re on the list (of terrorist states) in the first place. And they discussed those issues and I would look forward to having further discussions on that,” said Hill, who is also assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.

Asked for a time-frame, he said: “At this point, I can’t tell you how far along we will be on the question that I think they have, which is, when will they get off the list? But I think we’re discussing — we’re prepared to continue that discussion.” Last week’s talks were also deadlocked over the abductions of some 13 Japanese nationals decades ago, of whom five were released and the others died in custody, according to Pyonyang. Japan has refused to provide aid until there is a satisfactory explanation to the problem relating to the abductions.

Meanwhile, after missing a deadline to shut down its nuclear facilities in Yongbyon, North Korea eventually kept its promise in mid-July — a closure described as the first step to scale back its nuclear programmes. Referring to the closure of the nuclear facilities, Hill told reporters: “And as I’ve said many times, if it’s going to be meaningful, it needs to be followed by additional steps.” As to the future, he said that five working groups, including those dealing with economic assistance, energy and denuclearisation, will be meeting in the weeks ahead, possibly in August, to map out future strategy. Once the results of all working groups are in place, he said, there would be another six-party meet.

“And that’s when various options for disabling the Yongbyon complex... would be put together in a sequenced agreement which I hope could be concluded by the end of the year,”

Hill said. “Once we reach agreement in the six-party meeting, which is probably going to take us to one of these 11th hour deals, we would then hope to bring our ministers together in early September to bless what we’ve done and look ahead.” Asked whether the North Koreans will be tough negotiators, Hill said: “Well, you’re quite right. They wouldn’t begin to disable (their nuclear programmes) until after everything’s agreed.” — IPS