Powers to press North Korea at swan-song talks
Reuters - Wednesday, December 3
By Jon Herskovitz
SEOUL, Dec 3 - Regional powers said on Wednesday they will use a meeting next week, likely to be the Bush administration's last major forum with North Korea, to press the reclusive state to verify claims about its nuclear programme.
Analysts said North Korea, sensing U.S. President George W. Bush's team is looking for a rare diplomatic success before leaving office in January, may try to squeeze last-minute concessions at the six-party meeting next week in Beijing.
Failing that, it will likely wait until the next president takes office.
The most recent stumbling block in a disarmament-for-aid deal the North reached with China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States is Pyongyang's objection to allowing international inspectors to take samples out of the country for testing.
"We agreed that it should be made clear what is to be done, so there is no room for misunderstanding or misinterpretation among the six parties when the verification process starts," Japan's envoy Akitaka Saiki told reporters in Tokyo after meeting the U.S. and South Korean envoys to the talks.
North Korea's seasoned nuclear envoy Kim Kye-gwan and the top U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill are expected to meet soon in Singapore to set the tone for the six-party talks in Beijing.
Hill has been criticised by conservatives in Washington for being too flexible with North Korea and not obtaining detailed information from Pyongyang about its suspected programme to enrich uranium for weapons, or for proliferating technology to countries such as Syria.
President-elect Barack Obama has mostly supported Bush's North Korea diplomacy. The one thing Obama appears willing to consider, and which analysts say North Korean leader Kim Jong-il dearly prizes, is the first direct talks with a U.S. president.
"Further discussion on verification would only be possible after Obama takes office and sets it as a priority. Until then, the U.S. will likely remain in limbo on North Korean issues," said Kim Seung-hwan, with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Seoul.
Impoverished North Korea has spent the best part of two decades goading U.S. presidents and regional powers into handing over billions of dollars to curtail, but never actually end, its nuclear weapons programme, which is considered one of Asia's biggest security threats.
The North has largely cut ties with South Korea, once a major aid donor, in anger at the tough policies of its conservative president who took office in February. In the meantime, it has won concessions in the nuclear talks that benefit its economy. (Additional reporting by Isabel Reynolds in TOKYO and Kim Junghyun in SEOUL; Editing by Paul Tait)
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