Nuclear crisis drags on amid mixed prospects for 2004
SEOUL (AFP) Dec 17, 2003
Diplomatic arm-wrestling between the United States and North Korea is set to continue into the New Year and beyond as the unresolved nuclear crisis drags on.

While other nations hung up the festive lights, North Korea spent the holiday season last year busily removing international seals and monitoring cameras from its nuclear complex at Yongbyon, 90 kilometers (50 miles) north of Pyongyang.

It rang in the New Year 12 months ago by pulling out of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty after kicking out international monitors.

What the Stalinist state will do in the coming year to keep the nuclear crisis bubbling is an open question.

The options are varied. North Korea threatened in October -- seizing on the anniversary of the start of the nuclear crisis -- to test an atomic device and elbow its way into the club of nuclear states.

It could start the New Year with a bang of a different sort by test-firing a multi-stage missile now under development and said to be able to reach the continental United States.

Or it could offer a real surprise, a show of flexibility that would result in an early resumption of six-party talks.

Other nasty shocks may come, possibly even a repeat of the high-stakes provocation that saw four North Korean fighter jets attempt to intercept a US reconnaissance plane in international air space in March.

One certainty is the grinding on of the opaque diplomatic process between Washington and Pyongyang via the good offices of China that led to one round of multi-party talks in Beijing in August bringing together the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States.

"Prospects are a bit grim right now, and the arms-wrestling with go on," said a foreign ministry official here.

Pyongyang was so angry at the conclusion of those last talks that it said it would have no further part in the peace process because Washington failed to meet its demands for the dismantling its nuclear weapons programmes.

North Korea wants an end to US sanctions, diplomatic recognition and a guarantee for its security which it maintains is threatened by a hostile United States bent on war.

Washington has said it will not reward North Korea for breaking its international obligations and wants Pyongyang to scrap its nuclear weapons without conditions.

Washington says North Korea has admitted to running a clandestine uranium enrichment programme -- an admission that triggered the nuclear crisis in October, 2002. North Korea denies that, but boasts openly of reviving a more immediately dangerous plutonium-based programme, which it froze under the now-defunct 1994 Agreed Framework, a bilateral treaty with Washington.

After holding out for one-on-one talks with Washington, North Korea eventually bowed in April to US pressure for multi-party negotiations, with Washington insisting there will be no more bilateral deals following the failure of the 1994 accord.

The CIA says North Korea has one of two nuclear bombs and could quickly produce five or six more if it extracts plutonium from 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods stored at Yongbyon. North Korea, raising the stakes in the crisis, says it has already done so.

The final four months of the year were consumed by intense diplomatic efforts to reconvene six-party talks, which ultimately failed.

"Taken as whole, the year left not much to celebrate," said North Korean expert Yu Suk-Ryul.

But 2004 can be better, said Yu, of the Institute for Foreign Affairs and National Security, affiliated to the foreign ministry here.

"North Korea knows it has to come back to six party talks. It won't get anything until it does," he said.

He pointed to the dire economic situation in the impoverished country and suggested that supreme leader Kim Jong-Il may not be able to count on the undying loyalty of his 22 million people for much longer if he continued to fail to feed them.

Even so the Stalinist state is hanging tough on its demands for "simultaneous actions," another way of saying it will do nothing without receiving rewards from Washington.

Until Washington agrees, it can sit by and wait, while making more nuclear bombs, Noth Korea's foreign ministry said in a December statement.

For now Washington is not budging on its bottom line either -- the complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantling of North Korea's nuclear weapons drive.