Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - North Korea's view of a U.S. proposal to eliminate its nuclear weapons programs is "pretty negative," according to Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, who has just visited the reclusive Stalinist state.
Downer told reporters he had pressed the North Koreans to remain involved in six-party negotiations aimed at ending a deadlock that has dragged on for almost two years.
Pyongyang suggested Monday that it would not attend working-level talks to prepare for the next round of high-level meetings between the six countries involved -- the U.S., North and South Korea, Japan, China and Russia -- scheduled for September.
Its refusal to take part in even the preparatory talks has raised anew concerns about its desire to find a diplomatic solution to the dispute.
At the last six-way talks, in Beijing last June, Washington put forward a proposal that would bring North Korea some concessions -- "provisional" security guarantees from the U.S. and energy aid from other countries -- in return for a commitment to freeze its nuclear programs.
Those temporary measures would only become permanent once the programs were completely dismantled, and North Korea would have just three months to freeze its facilities.
Under the U.S. plan, Pyongyang would also have to allow full verification of the subsequent dismantling process.
Downer discussed the proposal during his four hours of talks with Foreign Minister Paek Nam-Sun and parliamentary head Kim Yong-Nam.
Australia, a close U.S. ally, is one of the few Western nations to have opened diplomatic relations with Pyongyang, and Downer said earlier he hoped the visit would contribute to the search for a settlement.
Although he said afterwards that the North Koreans had not confirmed their intention to take part in the next six-party talks, Downer did voice some optimism.
In an interview with CNN, he said there were some points that all parties agreed on, including the goal of eventual dismantling of the nuclear program. But he predicted a slow and "painstaking" process.
"I think in the end the North Koreans increasingly understand that for their country to get ahead, for them to get foreign aid, for them to get proper economic interaction with the rest of the region and the world, they need to abandon their nuclear programs."
The crisis began when the State Department in October 2002 said North Korea had admitted, when challenged, that it had been carrying out a covert uranium-enrichment program.
Doing so contravened an eight-year-old deal with Washington, under which North Korea undertook to freeze its nuclear programs in return for U.S. fuel aid and the provision by the U.S. and its allies of alternative, civilian reactors for power supply purposes.
After the 2002 admission, which North Korea denies having made, the agreement collapsed.
The U.S. and its allies suspended fuel aid shipments and work on the civilian reactors. North Korea kicked out U.N. inspectors from its mothballed plutonium-based nuclear facilities, restarted a reactor, withdrew from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and said it had reprocessed fuel rods which had been placed into storage under the earlier deal.
Since then, North Korea has been demanding a non-aggression pact from the Bush Administration, claiming it was American "hostility" that made its nuclear deterrent necessary in the first place. Pyongyang has also pressed for diplomatic and economic concessions.
Through three rounds of six-party talks, North Korea has continued to deny the existence of a uranium-based program, attempting to focus solely on the separate, plutonium-based one.
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