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All Headlines 09:54 May 01, 2008


Six-party Talks Likely to Resume in Late May Despite Obstacles

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- Despite allegations that North Korea proliferated nuclear technology to Syria, multilateral efforts to end the North's nuclear weapons program are likely to proceed, with the six-party talks possibly resuming in late May.

The upbeat mood came as the key members of the talks recently reaffirmed their commitment to negotiations for the North's denuclearization. In Washington on April 28, the top South Korean and U.S. nuclear envoys pledged to continue the stalled talks despite concerns about Pyongyang's proliferation activities. Around the same time in Beijing, the foreign ministers of North Korea and China said during their talks that it is "in everyone's interest" to implement the next phase of the agreement for the North's denuclearization.

The nuclear talks gained momentum in early April after chief negotiators of the United States and North Korea met in Singapore and narrowed differences over Pyongyang's declaration of its nuclear programs. Their provisional deal was followed by a visit to Pyongyang by U.S. officials from April 22-24 to discuss the declaration.

After the U.S. team's visit, North Korea said on April 24 its latest nuclear talks with the United States in Pyongyang produced progress, hinting that it will provide the long-awaited declaration in the near future. The North's positive tone came hours after the delegation of diplomats and nuclear experts led by Sung Kim, head of the State Department's Office of Korea Affairs, ended its three-day trip.

North Korea missed a Dec. 31 deadline to fully account for its nuclear activities under an aid-for-denuclearization deal, stalling the negotiations. The North's Soviet-era plutonium-producing facilities at Yongbyon, located north of the country's capital, are still being disabled.

The outcome of the U.S. group's visit was seen by many as a bellwether for the resumption of the six-way talks. "Technical matters for winding up the implementation of the October 3 agreement, including the contents of the nuclear declaration, were discussed there," an unidentified North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman told the country's official news agency after the visit. "The negotiations proceeded in a sincere and constructive manner, and progress was made there," the spokesman added without providing other details.

However, the Syria link surfaced on April 24 as the U.S. and North Korea were engaged in talks to negotiate the North's eventual nuclear dismantlement. U.S. confirmation of North Korea's atomic cooperation with Syria has sparked calls that Washington should not trust the communist regime, but rather exert more pressure on it. In addition to a plutonium-based weapons program, North Korea is suspected of having tried to enrich uranium to make atomic arms.

The U.S. decision to disclose the North Korea-Syria nuclear connection was intended to press Pyongyang to come clean on its atomic weapons programs, President George W. Bush said on April 29. The U.S. wanted to "advance certain policy objectives," Bush said at a White House press conference.

The White House, breaking nearly eight months of silence, announced the U.S. intelligence assessment that North Korea helped Syria build a nuclear reactor. The facility was destroyed by an Israeli air strike in September, and Israel later claimed that North Koreans were involved in the covert project.

North Korea has yet to respond to the U.S. allegations, but observers in Seoul said the communist North will react negatively. They said conservatives in the U.S. will try to make the Bush administration return to its previous hard-line stance on North Korea. Nonetheless, experts said the North will not abandon the six-party talks. Pyongyang expects Washington to cease application of its Trading with the Enemy Act to the North and remove Pyongyang from its list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Meanwhile, South Korea's chief envoy to the six-party talks flew to Washington, where South Korean and U.S. envoys reaffirmed that the six-party talks will continue despite the latest allegations. "We discussed various aspects of the six-party process... what we would expect to see as we continue on this process," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill said after meeting his South Korean counterpart Kim Sook.

Back to Washington, Sung Kim reported to Hill and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on his team's North Korea visit. Hill confirmed the U.S. commitments for the North's denuclearization as he talked to reporters after the meeting with his South Korean counterpart. "We also talked about all the commitments," he said. "I reiterated the position that Secretary (Condoleezza) Rice has taken on many occasions, that as the North Koreans complete all of their requirements, all of their obligations, we will certainly complete ours."

Officials in Seoul said that the Bush administration might have wanted to send a clear message to North Korea, which is preparing to present its long-delayed declaration, they said. Once the North submits a declaration acceptable to the U.S. and other related nations, Washington is expected to take initial steps to remove Pyongyang from the list of terrorism-sponsoring nations.

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