North Korea Offers to Halt Nuclear Program

Is North Korea serious about nuclear disarmament? (Photo: Kim Jae-hwan / AFP-Getty Images)

With the latest round of the six-party talks due to start in Beijing on Thursday, North Korean negotiators have offered to halt their country's nuclear program in exchange for 500,000 tons of fuel oil a year and a lifting of financial sanctions, according to American nuclear specialists invited to Pyongyang for discussions this week.

The Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun quoted former State Department official Joel Wit, who relayed the proposal from negotiators following his recent visit to Pyongyang as a guest of the North Korean leadership. Wit was engaged in a week of preliminary discussions concerning the North Korean nuclear program before the resumption of the stalled six-party talks.

Senior negotiators told Wit and another American nuclear expert, David Albright, of Pyongyang's willingness to reach agreement on the freezing of its nuclear program in return for economic and financial concessions from the international community.

Under the terms of the proposal, North Korea would agree to freeze its nuclear operations at the 5,000-kilowatt reactor in Yongbyon and other nuclear facilities and allow International Atomic Energy Agency officials to carry out inspections, according to Wit.

In return for these concessions, Pyongyang has asked for energy assistance from the international community in the form of fuel oil and an end to crippling financial sanctions imposed by the United States.

The United States recently forced the Banco Delta Asia in Macau to freeze $24 million in North Korean accounts following allegations that the bank was laundering counterfeit American dollars from North Korea.

The action had the effect of a financial embargo as other banks throughout China and Vietnam closed their accounts with Pyongyang. The financial embargo was keenly felt by North Korea already listed as one of the world's poorest nations.

Calling the North Korean attitude toward the proposal as "pretty optimistic," Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, who accompanied Wit, said he sensed that Pyongyang's negotiators were confident that agreement could be reached on North Korea's nuclear program.

"My sense is that they're willing to go for disarmament, but that it's going to be a very slow process, because of the lack of trust of the United States," he said.

Pyongyang has already stated that the agreement hinges on the delivery of light water reactors promised to Pyongyang under a 1994 deal to halt the North Korean nuclear program. The deal, negotiated under the Clinton administration, ended when Pyongyang admitted to pursue a nuclear weapons program in 2002.

Chief American negotiator Christopher Hill has so far played down the request, though he did say there was some room for discussion on the matter under agreements reached in previous rounds of the six-party talks. Hill said to reporters in Tokyo that North Korea must "get out of the nuclear business entirely," though did not rule out the possibility of economic assistance to the regime should they agree to disarm.

The offer though has been greeted with some skepticism in Washington, which is long used to seeing the North Korean regime exploit differing opinions within American administration departments on how best to disarm the North Koreans.

Buying time has been the regime's specialty and its current proposal is seen by many Pyongyang watchers as a cynical attempt to reduce international pressure on the regime following last year's apparently successful testing of a nuclear device.

The explosion of the nuclear bomb underlined the failure of the Bush administration's "hard-line" policy to force Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program. Far from complying with American demands, experts estimate North Korea now has the capacity to produce as many as 13 nuclear devices.

With the Bush administration desperate for a foreign policy success in a presidential term dominated by Iraq and record low domestic opinion polls, experts have speculated that any reasonable deal on disarming the North may be considered.

Washington press sources have already quoted Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as instructing Hill to push hard for any agreement with the reclusive nation. According to former negotiator Charles Pritchard, "Rice has been given a legacy charge. The clock is ticking."

The latest round of the six-party talks begins this week and involves negotiators from North and South Korea, China, Japan, the United States and Russia.

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