- The Washington Times - Monday, March 1, 2004

SEOUL — Six-party negotiations with North Korea ended over the weekend with diplomats cautiously optimistic that the talks had met their modest expectations, though the biggest improvement in relations might have come between Washington and Seoul.

All parties have agreed to establish working-level meetings, where the issues can be discussed in more detail, and to hold another round of high-level talks by July.

“I don’t think anyone expects a breakthrough at these kinds of talks,” said a Seoul-based diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

“The negotiators start with prepared statements and have to refer back to their capitals, so it’s difficult to reach a joint statement. With a working-level group, you have a more institutionalized process, so you can establish trust and get down to details.”

The creation of the working-level meetings, even without an agreed starting date, “is a first step in a very long process,” said Kwak Dae-han of Seoul’s Advisory Council on Democratic and Peaceful Unification.

“In the chairman’s statement issued after the talks, all parties agreed to ‘peaceful coexistence.’ That is very significant, as the North has insisted the U.S. abandon its ‘hostile policy,’” he said.

U.S. officials were more enthusiastic about the outcome than some of their counterparts, with one official calling the talks “very successful.”

Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing, however, said “severe differences” remained between the United States and North Korea, and Russian delegate Alexander Losyukov was quoted yesterday in Moscow as saying that if the mistrust continues, “the situation could be aggravated, and military intervention is possible.”

The major sticking point between North Korea and the United States is over a uranium-based nuclear program to which the North admitted during bilateral talks in October 2002 but now denies.

That admission led to the breakup of the 1994 Agreed Framework, which had halted North Korea’s plutonium-based program at its Yongbyon reactor in return for energy aid from the United States, South Korea, Japan and the European Union.

The United States said it already had solid intelligence about the uranium-based program before Pyongyang’s admission, but other parties to the talks — China, Japan, Russia and South Korea — are less convinced.

“It will be very difficult for the U.S. to provide physical evidence of a uranium program,” said Mr. Kwak.

The negotiations did ease fears that policy differences between the United States and South Korea could raise anti-American tensions in the South, where National Assembly elections are scheduled in April.

“In consultations before the Beijing talks, the U.S. accepted South Korea’s ‘Three Step’ proposal to provide aid in return for the North’s complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantling of its nuclear programs,” Mr. Kwak said.

The United States has ruled out what it describes as rewarding Pyongyang for “bad behavior.” But, Mr. Kwak said, “Even if the U.S. does not provide aid itself, the offer to the North from the other parties remains.”

The Seoul-based diplomat agreed that Washington and Seoul had presented “broadly parallel” positions in Beijing.

“If the talks had broken down, there would have been pressure on South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun to take a more independent policy, but that did not happen, and that will play in his favor in the election,” the diplomat said.

Seoul was not expected to release an official statement on the talks before tomorrow.

Seoul has taken a conciliatory approach toward its northern neighbor since 1997, even in the face of military provocation, such as a naval battle in a disputed fishing ground that killed six South Korean sailors in 2002.

Some groups within South Korea have expressed alarm at what they consider the Bush administration’s bellicose policies, and these concerns have strengthened latent anti-American feelings in the country.

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