China Urged to End North Korean Impasse

A South Korean activist holding a mock nuclear missile shouts slogans during an anti-North Korea rally

A South Korean activist holding a mock nuclear missile shouts slogans during an anti-North Korea rally in Seoul. (Photo: Jung Yeon-je / AFP-Getty Images)

As North Korea further increased its isolation from the world community last week by announcing its withdrawal from six-party disarmament talks, the focus has now fallen on China to press Pyongyang to return to the negotiating table.

In dismissing a North Korean proposal to engage in face-to-face discussions, the United States has reiterated its support for the stalled six-party negotiating framework, which includes China, Japan, South Korea and Russia.

Announcing the rejection of the bilateral talks in a press conference, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said: “It's not an issue between North Korea and the United States. It's a regional issue. There’s plenty of opportunities for North Korea to speak directly with us in the context of the six-party talks.”

Citing the non-cooperative stance of the United States and its allies as the reason for its decision to pull out of the disarmament talks, Pyongyang had previously announced its intentions in a combative statement released by the official North Korean news agency (KCNA).

“… We are compelled to suspend our participation in the talks for an indefinite period till we have recognized that there is justification for us to attend … and there are ample conditions and atmosphere to expect positive results. … There is no justification for us to participate in the six-party talks again given that the Bush administration termed the D.P.R.K., a dialogue partner, an ‘outpost of tyranny,’ ” the statement said, using North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Admitting openly for the first time that it possessed nuclear weapons, North Korea also stated that it would “bolster its nuclear weapons arsenal” to use in national self-defense.

“The U.S. disclosed its attempt to topple the political system in the D.P.R.K. at any cost, threatening it with a nuclear stick” the statement said. “This compels us to take a measure to bolster its nuclear weapons arsenal in order to protect the ideology, system, freedom and democracy chosen by its people.”

Speaking on Radio Australia, Dr. Kim Taewoo, director of arms control research at South Korea’s Institute for Defense Analysis spoke of the significant and worrying nature of this development.

“To specialists like me its very surprising news because North Korea is crossing the ‘red line’ and shifting to open nuclear weapons policy” he said. “… It is really frightening news. Changing their outward policies, [these are] meaningful changes in North Korea.”

However, Pyongyang’s announcement has been met with a degree of skepticism among some regional leaders and international observers.

“… It's a reminder that we are not dealing with a typical democratic regime, or even a regime which, although authoritarian, is keen to be a good world citizen,” Australian Prime Minister John Howard said in a statement to the Australian Nine Network. “And it's a quite dangerous situation.

“Now there's an element of bluff, I'm sure, there's an element of exaggeration, even if she does have some nuclear capacity, it's probably being exaggerated.”

With other regional leaders urging caution and restraint, including South Korea and Japan, China’s role in encouraging North Korea to return to the six-party talks is seen as crucial.

The Bush administration, recognizing China’s pivotal role, has been working closely with Chinese officials providing them with detailed information on Pyongyang’s development and proliferation of nuclear technology.

In a highly unusual move, according to a Feb. 9 report in The New York Times, an envoy sent by President George W. Bush to Chinese President Hu Jintao delivered proof of the sale to Libya of uranium hexaflouride, a product used in the enrichment of uranium for building nuclear weapons.

If true, the report would seriously undermine North Korea’s long held claim that its nuclear weapons project is designed for defensive purposes only.

The change in North Korea’s rhetoric since these claims were made public has prompted many observers to note that the delivery of this intelligence may have precipitated Pyongyang’s withdrawal from the six-party negotiations. The notoriously paranoid North Korean leadership may well have seen the intelligence sharing as a hostile act and abandoned the negotiating process as a result.

Chinese authorities have promised to act on this evidence and the official Chinese media has quoted a phone conversation between Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as proof of increased Chinese efforts to pressure North Korea to return to the negotiating table.

“China will stay in touch with all relevant parties and strive to make the situation develop in a positive direction so that the six-party talks could be resumed as soon as possible,” Li is reported as saying.

Though no specific details were given, it is believed China will send a high-level negotiating team to North Korea to resolve the impasse.