Little Progress Seen on North Korea
Rice spoke in Singapore, a day after she and foreign ministers from South Korea, Russia, China and Japan held first-ever talks with North Korean's foreign minister on the sidelines of an Asia-Pacific security forum.
Wednesday’s meeting of the six ministers, the first since the six-party process was established in 2003, was expected to signal positive movement in efforts to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis. But apart from straight talk from the U.S. and its allies, little appears to have been achieved.
Referring to a report produced by North Korea last month, purportedly a full and accurate accounting of its nuclear programs, Rice told reporters that without verification, “nobody is going to trust” the data given by the North Koreans on how much plutonium they have produced.
“Fortunately, there are very good, tried and true, internationally-recognized methods to verify the number of kilograms of plutonium made,” she said.
The five parties involved in the talks with North Korea – the U.S., Japan, South Korea, China and Russia – want Pyongyang to agree to a protocol covering verification and reportedly including principles for inspection of North Korean facilities.
A draft protocol was given to North Korea during the latest round of the six-party talks in Beijing in early July. A North Korean response was expected in Singapore, but it was not forthcoming.
“I don’t think the North Koreans left [the meeting] with any illusions about the fact that the ball is in their court and that everybody believes they have got to respond and respond positively on verification,” Rice said.
Although she described the meeting as “good,” there was little Rice or Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill – the chief U.S. negotiator at the six-party talks – said to indicate that any substantive progress had been made.
Asked during a press briefing why the meeting should not be regarded as a waste of time, Hill pointed out that it was the first time the six ministers had gathered and he thought it was useful for the North Korean foreign minister to have seen the importance attached to the verification protocol.
Under a 2007 six-party agreement, North Korea pledged to disable key plutonium-based facilities and to provide a complete declaration of its nuclear activities, in return for economic aid and diplomatic concessions.
The disabling of the facilities went ahead and, after Pyongyang eventually handed over its declaration last month, President Bush announced he was moving forward with a process of meeting a key North Korean demand – removal from Washington’s list of terror-sponsoring states and ending sanctions under the Trading with the Enemy Act.
Some conservative critics in the U.S. worry that the administration is rushing to achieve a deal before President Bush leaves office, and were scathing of the decision to remove North Korea from the terrorism blacklist. There are also concerns about the fact the declaration did not address uranium-based nuclear activities, or North Korea’s alleged proliferation.
The delisting process takes 45 days, during which the accuracy and completeness of the North Korean nuclear declaration will have to be verified.
Bush said on June 26 that North Korea during that period would have to show the “seriousness of its cooperation” and that the U.S. would “carefully observe North Korea’s actions – and act accordingly.”
The 45-day period ends on August 10.
‘No progress on abductions’
Another important goal for North Korea is economic aid – the equivalent of one million tons of heavy fuel oil. North Korean Foreign Minister Pak Ui-chun reportedly pressed during the Singapore meeting for the other countries to meet their commitments under the agreement.
But Japan has made it clear that it will not provide its share of the assistance until North Korea has resolved a bilateral dispute over the kidnapping of Japanese citizens decades ago.
“Unless and until North Korea really comes to grips with this issue of abduction, there is no way for it to expect economic assistance from Japan,” a spokesman for Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura told reporters. He said there had been no progress on the issue.
At least 17 Japanese were seized by North Korean agents during the 1970s and 80s, apparently to train spies in Japanese culture and language. Five were allowed to return six years ago, but Japan wants a full accounting of the others.
Japan, America’s closest ally among the countries involved in the talks, has maintained the toughest line towards the Kim Jong-il regime – both as a result of the abduction issue and because Japan sees itself as the number one potential target for North Korea’s missiles.
Pyongyang has been complaining about the slow pace of the fuel oil deliveries, and Tokyo’s refusal to provide its allocation will add to the delays.
Despite the hurdle this poses to the process, Komura’s spokesman said Rice during the meeting had backed Japan’s stance on the abductions. America’s other ally among the six, South Korea, was embroiled in a row with its Stalinist neighbor Thursday over comments by its defense minister describing North Korea as an enemy.
South Korea used to refer to the North in official documents as its “main enemy,” but the present conservative government’s liberal predecessor discontinued the practice several years ago, amid improving relations.
This week, however, Defense Minister Lee Sang-hee told lawmakers in Seoul that the military regarded the North as “a present enemy.”
Reaction came Thursday from a North Korean state body called the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification. In a statement disseminated by the official Korean Central News Agency it called Lee’s remark “unpardonable provocation” and “nothing less than a declaration of war.”
South Korea should be responsible for the consequences, the committee said, threatening unspecified “tougher counter-measures.”