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Absent North Korea Casts Shadow Over APEC Meeting

Photo courtesy of Saeed Khan and AFP.
by Peter Harmsen
Hanoi (AFP) Nov 14, 2006
North Korea may be absent from an Asia Pacific summit in Hanoi but its nuclear program is casting a shadow as leaders grapple for consensus on how to restart disarmament talks, officials said Tuesday. The North's new status as a nuclear power has profound implications for nearly all members of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum meeting in the Vietnamese capital.

The issue will keep officials and leaders busy during a week of talks culminating at the weekend when US President George W. Bush will rub shoulders with leaders from China, Japan, Russia and South Korea, among others.

"It is the elephant in the room and it is going to have to be addressed," said one Western official.

Christopher Hill, the US point man on North Korea, was expected to meet Wednesday with his counterparts from Japan and South Korea.

Key in any decision at the APEC summit is China, which has hosted several rounds of largely unproductive six-nation talks aimed at getting North Korea to abandon its nuclear dream.

"I wouldn't be surprised if on the margin of this meeting the leaders and ministers will spend some time on it," said a senior member of the Chinese delegation.

One opportunity to discuss North Korea could be a gathering of 19 foreign ministers, excluding Hong Kong and Taiwan, on Thursday, officials said.

A sticking point is whether APEC should issue a separate statement on the concerns raised by the North's October 9 atom bomb test, rather then indirect references in a final communique.

China is distinctly non-committal on its response to that idea, reportedly being pushed by the United States.

"The economies (of APEC) are still looking at the appropriate format for how this issue might be addressed," said the Chinese official.

In fact, China has probably already decided to oppose a separate statement, according to some sources in Hanoi, preferring just a single paragraph in the leaders' final declaration, another diplomatic source said.

"Otherwise, it is going to become an APEC issue, and they prefer to keep it separate," said the source, speaking on condition of anonymity.

In contrast, Japan, whose Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has taken a tough line on Pyongyang, will push leaders to issue a "united and strong" message, Tokyo said earlier this week.

The APEC meeting comes less than two weeks after North Korea agreed in secret negotiations in Beijing to return to the six-nation talks, which also involve China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States.

The timing for the resumption of talks is unconfirmed, but according to Russian officials, it could be in early December.

"Maybe the Chinese are trying not to unsettle the waters too much and give the North Koreans as few excuses as possible to not attend the six-party talks," said Peter Beck, a Seoul-based analyst with the International Crisis Group, a research institute.

North Korea is not present in Hanoi, even though it has an embassy here.

An embassy official told AFP he did not think Pyongyang would use the APEC gathering to engage in talks with officials from the other five nations.

China said Tuesday there were no plans to hold a multilateral meeting on the North Korean nuclear issue during the APEC summit.

"At present we don't have any information about a multilateral meeting or any other meeting (on the sidelines of APEC)," foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said. "There is no such arrangement."

Beck also said it was unlikely the other five would sit down together for consultations without North Korea.

"Now that the North Koreans have agreed to return to the six-party talks, five-nation talks, even unofficial ones, are very unlikely," said Beck.

"The last thing they want to do now is give the North Koreans the impression that they are being ganged up on."

earlier related report
US hopes to resume NKorea six-party talks next month
Hanoi (AFP) Nov 15 - The US pointman on North Korea said he hoped to resume six-party talks on the country's nuclear weapons programme next month as he arrived in Vietnam ahead of talks Wednesday with the group's other members.

Christopher Hill was due to meet South Korean and Japanese negotiators Wednesday on the sidelines of an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) annual meeting due to bring leaders from 21 member nations to Hanoi.

He said he also hoped to meet his Russian and Chinese counterparts to pave the way and agree on a start date for resuming joint talks with the communist regime which tested a nuclear bomb on October 9.

"On North Korea there'll be some meetings on the side to deal with that situation," said Hill, shortly after arriving in the Vietnamese capital.

"I'll be talking to my South Korean and Japanese colleagues.

"Also probably I'll be seeing the Russians and the Chinese, and we look forward to further preparations as we get ready to restart the six-party talks, probably some time in December."

Past talks hosted by North Korea's key ally China, and which stalled a year ago, failed to deter Pyongyang from conducting the nuclear test which triggered global condemnation and UN sanctions.

North Korea said this month it is ready to resume negotiations.

Hill, the US assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said good preparations were key to achieving a successful outcome.

"We have said all along we want to start the six-party talks as soon as possible, but a key element of that is to be well prepared because when we do start we want to be sure that we can really make progress," he said.

North Korea, an isolated Stalinist regime and the only one of the six nations that is not an APEC member, is set to be a key topic at the forum's meeting of foreign ministers and at its leaders' summit this weekend.

It was uncertain whether APEC members would issue a separate statement on North Korea, a proposal diplomatic sources said China would likely oppose, or whether they would include a reference to the crisis in a final statement.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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