The following, originally published in The Daily Yomiuri on Monday, May 5, 2003, on Page 8, is reproduced here with The Yomiuri Shimbun's permission.

Trilateral talks create hope for nuclear-free North Korea

Howard H. Baker, Jr.
Special to The Yomiuri Shimbun

The trilateral talks in Beijing between China, North Korea and the United States recently were remarkable in that they took place at all. After months of declaring that they wouldn't talk about their nuclear program, the North Koreans sat down to discuss it, not bilaterally with the United States, but in a multilateral forum.

In that sense, the meeting can be seen as progress though the discussions were merely exploratory and not a negotiation. All three parties had a chance to present their positions. The atmosphere was businesslike, and the Chinese, in addition to serving as hosts, participated fully in the discussions. I harbor some hope that the Beijing meeting may be the first step in a long process leading to the goal that everyone shares: a Korean Peninsula free of nuclear weapons.

The head of the U.S. delegation, Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, made clear that our goal was to obtain a diplomatic solution that resulted in a verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of North Korea's nuclear program, meaning an end to both the plutonium and uranium programs. We will not reward North Korea for promising to do in the future what they already pledged to do in the past. The United States will not conduct bilateral talks with North Korea because the Agreed Framework negotiated bilaterally almost 10 years ago demonstrated that the North Koreans cannot be trusted to honor their commitments to us. Moreover, North Korea's nuclear programs are an issue of concern not only to Washington, but also to the broader international community. China, South Korea, Japan and the International Atomic Energy Agency have all made it clear that they share the common goal of keeping nuclear weapons off the Korean Peninsula.

The United States declared that it sought expanded multilateral discussions that included Japan and South Korea in the sessions. The United States also raised as a human rights issue the matter of Japanese abductees, an outstanding matter that impinged on our discussions. Finally, while we stressed that we would not negotiate about these issues, if North Korea satisfied our requirements for verifiable and irreversible end to its nuclear program, then we could begin to discuss some of their agenda items of economic cooperation and normalization of relations along with our concerns.

The United States fully briefed Japan and South Korea on the substance of the talks and the three countries agreed to meet formally to continue the process of consultation. As U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has said, there were no surprises in the talks, but there are elements of the North Korean presentation that require close study and discussion with our allies. North Korea said they had completed reprocessing of the spent fuel rods at Yongbyon. They claimed they had nuclear weapons. And they presented what they described as a new proposal that might lead to the end of their nuclear program and perhaps even to a deal to address their missile capability. And they made demands in return that are quite considerable. We are skeptical, and if past North Korean behavior is any indication of what is to come, we can expect that the road ahead will be difficult, with them offering their usual mixture of ambiguous statements, harsh rhetoric, and what I call their serial provocations.

In the face of North Korea's traditional tactics, we should remain calm, patient and focused on our objective of a diplomatic solution that results in the total end to North Korea's nuclear program. We should expect the process to be long because our objectives are clearly at variance with those of North Korea.

We seek a peaceful North Korea that poses no threat to its neighbors with a productive people who are no longer impoverished and terrorized by their own leaders. On the other hand, we know that the primary objective of the Kim Jong Il regime is its own survival. Time will demonstrate whether our determination to realize our objectives will be matched by willingness on the part of North Korea to understand our resolve and acknowledge that the challenges it poses are of concern to all of its neighbors and not just one country.