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Last Updated: Friday, 15 December 2006, 14:45 GMT
Low hopes for North Korea talks
By Penny Spiller
BBC News

When envoys of the six nations involved in talks on North Korea's nuclear ambitions meet in Beijing on Monday they do so in a very different political landscape to their last session just over a year ago.

US envoy Christopher Hill in Japan on 30 November 2006
The US envoy says financial sanctions will be addressed

Then, there were grounds for hope. In what was hailed - at first - as an historic agreement, North Korea had promised in September 2005 to dismantle its nuclear programme in return for economic aid and other benefits.

Less than two months later things had gone sour after Pyongyang walked out of the talks process in protest at a US decision to freeze North Korean accounts at a Macau-based bank, amid allegations of counterfeiting and money laundering.

Since then, North Korea has raised the stakes by testing seven missiles in July and then, to international alarm, a nuclear device in October.

In the same time, the Bush administration's standing on the global stage has been knocked by the deteriorating situation in Iraq and its drubbing in the US mid-term elections.

So can Monday's six-party talks - involving the two Koreas, China, the US, Japan and Russia - achieve anything?

Both the US and hosts China say they want to revive the September 2005 agreement.

North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear facility

Beijing reportedly wants to set up a number of working parties to look at issues such as the dismantling of North Korea's nuclear programme and a framework for peace on the Korean peninsula.

The US has agreed to address its freeze on North Korea's financial assets - something Pyongyang is particularly keen to see lifted.

But analysts are pessimistic that anything more substantial will be achieved.

"Each party - particularly the US and North Korea - comes with different objectives," said Dr Zhiqun Zhu, assistant professor of international political economy and diplomacy at the University of Bridgeport.

"I don't see any real convergence of their interests".

He believes an opportunity was lost last year when the September agreement fell apart, and North Korea has now gained the upper hand in the negotiations.

"The US has nothing to offer. South Korea argues that if you give Pyongyang very strong incentives it may consider dismantling, but the US appears unwilling to give anything," Dr Zhu said.


Other parties to the talks will be watching North Korea.

A nation like North Korea does not start down a nuclear path on a whim. History shows it has relentlessly pursued nuclear weapons for decades
Dr Sung-yoon Lee

Dr Sung-yoon Lee, a research associate at Harvard University's Korea Institute, believes Pyongyang will be bullish.

"Now that North Korea has tested a weapon, it will think it almost a right to negotiate from a position of strength, as a nuclear power," he said.

At the heart of the issue, analysts say, is the desire by Kim Jong-il, North Korea's leader, to guarantee his regime's survival and legitimacy.

The country's official media has repeatedly stated that it needs a nuclear arsenal to defend itself from possible US attack.

North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan (left) with South Korean envoy Chun Yung-woo after talks in Beijing on 30 November 2006
Will North Korea have greater bargaining power this time?

Sung-Yoon Lee believes North Korea will not give up its nuclear programme - whatever it promises - because it is the only leverage Pyongyang has to stave off any threat to its existence.

"A nation like North Korea does not start down a nuclear path on a whim. History shows it has relentlessly pursued nuclear weapons for decades," he said.

"North Korea doesn't have a lot going for it. But its formidable military, and now nuclear power, is one way it can continue to blackmail the international community into giving it what it wants."

That implies that Washington and its allies may have to acknowledge North Korea as a nuclear state, rather than try and persuade it to disarm.

And Washington may also have to give serious thought to recognising North Korea's sovereignty. At present the situation is complicated because the US has no diplomatic relations with the North, and North and South Korea remain technically at war following a 1953 armistice.

"How can you deal with your enemy when you don't even recognise it. For Kim, such recognition is important for his regime's survival," Dr Zhu said.

They key to progress at Monday's talks could be China and South Korea, and the mediating role they might play between the opposing parties, Dr Zhu believes.

"We cannot really expect much, but the simple fact they are talking is encouraging. It provides an opportunity for both sides to cool down, and may be some concessions can be reached," he said.

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