BEIJING – U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly began talks with North Korea on Wednesday aimed at resolving a standoff over Pyongyang’s suspected nuclear weapons program, but few expect a breakthrough.
With North Korean negotiator Li Gun considered too junior to cut a deal, diplomats said the first formal face-off between Washington and Pyongyang since the crisis began last October was likely to yield only plans for more talks.
Kelly and Li huddled behind closed doors at the Diaoyutai State Guest House, the walled garden compound where China, trying to play an honest broker role in the talks, receives visiting dignitaries. There was no comment from officials involved.
North Korea wants a security guarantee from the United States, as well as aid and diplomatic recognition, and says it needs a powerful deterrent to stave off the threat of attack.
Washington says Pyongyang, which President Bush has bracketed as part of an “axis of evil” along with Iran and pre-war Iraq, must scrap the nuclear program before it will offer a guarantee.
This wide gulf is unlikely to be bridged this week and the Beijing meetings marked the start of what is likely to be a lengthy process to defuse the crisis.
Both sides staked out tough positions ahead of the talks, with Secretary of State Colin Powell saying the United States would not be intimidated by a nuclear armed North Korea and could “do whatever might be required” in face of such a threat.
North Korea’s air force began long-distance flight training in moves apparently aimed to counter U.S. fighter jet tactics used in the war in Iraq, South Korea’s Defense Ministry said.
Failure to resolve the dispute could present Washington with the unpalatable choice of accepting a nuclear-armed North Korea # which could trigger a nuclear arms race in Northeast Asia # or resorting to a strike against its facilities, analysts said.
LAY OUT POSITIONS
The commander of U.S. military forces in Japan said on Wednesday any North Korean nuclear weapon “represents a grave security threat” and the talks in Beijing could be a “major step toward easing tension on the Korean peninsula.”
China, widely seen as a little more than a facilitator, held a working breakfast with the U.S. delegation ahead of the talks.
“The purpose of these talks is to get started, for us to be able to lay out the means for a verifiable and irreversible end to North Korea’s nuclear program,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said in Washington. “I’m sure the North Koreans will lay out their positions as well,” he said.
The Korean peninsula remains the Cold War’s last flashpoint and reclusive North Korea, which talks regularly about war being imminent, fears it could be the next target after the quick U.S. military campaign in Iraq.
Bush told magazine reporters on Tuesday he has no current plans for another war.
Washington wants the North Koreans to close down their nuclear program to end a crisis festering since October.
NORTH KOREAN GENERAL
The presence in Beijing of Jo Myong-rok, the military number two to North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, indicated Pyongyang was keen to secure a U.S. pledge not to attack, as well as finding out where China stood, Chinese analysts said.
Jo, due to leave on Wednesday after a three-day trip, met top general Guo Boxiong, Defense Minister Cao Gangchuan and, on the eve of negotiations, President Hu Jintao.
“General Jo’s visit to Beijing is a very important signal,” said Peking University professor Zhu Feng. “Pyongyang is furiously committing itself to getting a security guarantee.”
Based on information provided by U.S. officials in Beijing, a senior Japanese source in Tokyo said the North Korean delegates were “very nervous.”
“I believe China has been putting significant pressure on North Korea,” the source said.
But a breakthrough offer from North Korea seemed unlikely. Li would be limited to discussing procedural matters, a Western diplomat said. “He will have very, very little negotiating room.”
Any real decisions would lie with Kim Jong-il.
“If North Korea sent the Foreign Minister it wouldn’t make any difference. Any decision would have to go back to Pyongyang,” said Ralph Cossa, director of the Pacific Forum CSIS, a Hawaii-based think-tank. “Kelly has more latitude, but he also has boundaries,” Cossa said.
The nuclear standoff began in October, when Washington said the North admitted to an active covert program to make highly enriched uranium for nuclear arms beside a plutonium program frozen under a 1994 pact with the United States.
This time, the U.S. goal is to eliminate, rather than merely freeze, those programs # a tall order, experts say. (Additional reporting by Paul Eckert in Seoul, Arshad Mohammad in Washington, Jane Macartney in Singapore and Jonathan Ansfield and John Ruwitch in Beijing)