By Kim Young-jin
Amid reports that North Korea is expanding its nuclear program and proliferation activities, experts here predict a meeting under the stalled six-party disarmament framework could come as soon as early next year.
Their analysis comes in the wake of recent reports that the North is building a light-water reactor and proliferating nuclear equipment, and as Seoul and Washington call for Pyongyang to show its genuine intent to denuclearize before the talks resume.
“I think the six-party members are trying to talk about the possibility of the resumption of the talks even if the North doesn’t take positive action toward dismantling all of its nuclear development program,” Yoo Ho-yeol, an expert on inter-Korean relations at Korea University, told The Korea Times.
Many analysts say the North will brandish its nuclear program to consolidate military power as it attempts to transfer power to leader Kim Jong-il’s youngest son, Kim Jong-un. The elder Kim’s health is said to be waning after reportedly suffering a stroke in 2008.
The talks are seen by many as the most viable way to hold dialogue with North Korea and manage its nuclear ambitions. Pyongyang walked away from the forum, which also includes Japan, Russia and China, last year in response to international sanctions imposed for its nuclear and missile tests.
On the sidelines of the G20 summit held in Seoul last week, leaders of parties to the talks discussed how and when to resume the forum in bilateral meetings.
At the summit U.S. President Barack Obama called on Pyongyang to show “seriousness of purpose” before talks are resumed, while Chinese President Hu Jintao said Beijing has called on it to improved inter-Korean relations. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev expressed concern over the ongoing program and vowed to work for better conditions for the talks to resume.
Park Young-ho, a senior fellow of the government-affiliated Korea Institute for National Unification, said he “cautiously expects” China, the North’s main benefactor, to exert its influence over Pyongyang to coax it back to preliminary talks.
“The the North could make some type of ‘forward-looking’ gesture so that in the first quarter of next year we might see the resumption of talks among top representatives within the six-party framework,” he said, adding that during such a meeting, Washington and Pyongyang would meet bilaterally.
A U.N. report released last Friday confirmed suspicions that Pyongyang is “surreptitiously” supplying banned nuclear and ballistic equipment to Iran, Syria and Myanmar. It said the North is using “masking techniques” to make the shipments and avoid international sanctions.
Then on Saturday, media reported that Pyongyang is apparently building an experimental light-water nuclear reactor at its main Yongbyon nuclear complex, citing an American nuclear expert who had been invited to the isolated state.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Kim Young-sun on Monday said Seoul had not yet confirmed the report but that such a development would "be going contrary to expectations from members of the six-party talks and the international community."
The North, backed by China, has in recent months signaled its willingness to come back to the talks.
But prospects for resumption have been clouded by the ongoing issue of the sinking in March of the South Korean naval vessel
Cheonan, which Seoul blames the North but Pyongyang denies.
Seoul, which previously demanded an apology for the incident, has recently prioritized the North’s genuine intent to denuclearize over an apology. Washington continues to call for the North to live up to previous agreements under the six party framework and improve its ties with the South.
Oh Kong-dan, a researcher with the U.S.-based Institute for Defense Analysis, said efforts in Washington to resume the talks could be hastened by its presidential election cycle, with the next polls slated for 2012.
“When an administration is going through its third year ― the Obama administration ― they become frustrated and nervous on any stalled issues, for example, the six-party talks,” she said. “So everybody begins to show interest in dealing with the North.”
Professor Yoo said the parties could opt to take a “synchronized approach” to resolving issues related to the talks, the Cheonan incident and tension on the peninsula.
“Once we agree to resume the talks in Beijing, then by adopting that as gesture from the North to reduce tensions on the peninsula, then we can bring the Cheonan incident within the six-party framework,” he said. “From there, we can discuss how to resume humanitarian aid and economic cooperation.”