09/26/2005, 00.00
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Pyongyang nuclear agreement: Difficult and somewhat hopeful

by Pino Cazzaniga

A minimal, good result after nearly three years of talks and tensions

Seoul (AsiaNews) - "It was a difficult delivery but finally the baby is born... now it will need much care from its parents" [the United States and North Korea] and its relatives [China, Russia, Japan, South Korea] to enable it to grow as it should." This is how a South Korean analyst described the agreement reached by six parties to resolve North Korea's nuclear problem, signed in Beijing on 19 September.

The conference delegates rose to their feet, all smiles, and applauded when the Chinese representative Wu Dawei, read the declaration of the accord reached after 50 days of uphill talks in Diaoyutai, the guest palace in the Chinese capital. The first article of the declaration stipulates that North Korea will renounce nuclear arms and programmes to manufacture them and that it will shortly return to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), subjecting itself to inspections by the International Agency for Atomic Energy (IAEA).

The photo of six joined hands was immediately published by media agencies around the world, and some analysts went so far as to define the agreement as

A laborious agreement

And yet the night before, the expression on delegates' faces was one of resignation. All feared that even the fourth round of "six-party talks" would conclude, as had the preceding three, in a stalemate. The North Korean delegate, Kim Kye Gwam and his counterpart from the United States, Christopher Hill, had not managed to reach a compromise about one point. Pyongyang was asking that its right to own nuclear establishments for civil means be recognized. Washington, wary of the astute calculated-risk policy of North Korean leaders, had no intention of giving way on this point: "complete nuclear dismantlement before any further discussion".

Thanks to the diplomatic ability of the Chinese and – it must be owned – to the flexibility of the American government, a compromise was reached. The final protocol declares that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) maintains the right to use nuclear energy for pacific purposes. The other parties expressed respect (for this conviction) and accepted to discuss, at an opportune time, the project to offer the DPRK a "light water" nuclear reactor.

Clauses in the agreement which favour North Korea are substantial. China, Russia, South Korea, Japan and the United States will provide the energy material (oil and electricity) it needs. Besides, the United States declared that it has no nuclear arms on the peninsula nor does it have the intention of attacking or invading the north using nuclear or conventional weapons.

The declaration concludes with a commitment expressed by all six parties to meet again in Beijing in November to embark upon the road of implementation of the agreement.

On the starting line

Wu Dawei considers the joint declaration as the most significant result obtained in two years of negotiations. This is not an exaggerated view if one considers it from the Chinese mediators' perspective. In 2002, relations between the United States and North Korea had reached rather perilous levels of tension due to the nuclear problem. The possibility of a conflict on the Korean peninsula and consequently, of destabilization of the entire North-east Asian region, was far more than idle speculation. The stalemate was broken thanks to the diplomacy of Beijing, which proposed the idea of six-party meetings, inviting South Korea, Japan, Russia to participate apart from the two opponents; China itself chaired the meetings. The first three rounds of the talks, launched in 2003, failed. Thanks to the joint declaration at the end of the fourth session, the Chinese initiative did was not abortive.

The overall reaction in South Korea to news of the joint declaration was of optimism tempered by prudence. According to the highly esteemed daily Joongang, "the agreement is more than a declaration of principle, but much less than a concrete programme".

Prof. Jung Bong-geum of the Institute for Security in Seoul, intending to counter scepticism prevailing abroad, said: "Can we trust the North Korean leaders? We know that in the past they did not keep their word given in bilateral relations with the United States and South Korea. This time, however, there is a 'six-party' agreement and the warrantors carry a lot of weight."

The judgement expressed by the US delegate Christopher Hill was the most prudent of all: "It is a good agreement. But we must wait and see what will happen in the coming days or weeks."

An uncertain future

Alas, one day proved time enough for anxieties to resurface. On 20 September the spokesman of the Pyongyang Foreign Affairs Ministry said North Korea will renounce its nuclear programmes only after the United States has built the light water nuclear reactor for them.

The American Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice, was quick to denounce the opportunistic interpretation of the protocol signed by the "six". But for Prof. Daniel Pinkton, director of the Centre for Studies on Nuclear Proliferation in Seoul, the declaration by the North Korea Foreign Affairs Ministry is an expression of pure vanity: Pyongyang cannot bear to feel technically inferior to neighouring nations especially South Korea, Japan and China.

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