North Korea promises talks in return for peace treaty

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The Independent Online

Yesterday, officials in Washington and other capitals were assessing the new gambit from the North, trying to determine whether it was a genuine initiative, or merely an attempt like others in the past to muddy the waters ahead of the six-nation meeting. The North has made similar appeals in the past.

On Tuesday, senior representatives of the two Koreas, the US, China, Russia and Japan, will sit down in Beijing for a fresh attempt to reach a deal whereby Pyongyang would give up its highly advanced programme to acquire nuclear arms, in return for security guarantees and economic assistance.

The six have met three times, the last time in June 2004 when the North was presented with precisely such an offer. But since then it has boycotted further meetings, at one point announcing that it had nuclear weapons, and starting preparations for what seemed an impending nuclear test. The North is known to be seeking nuclear weapons by not one but two routes, by reprocessing used fuel rods at its experimental nuclear reactor at Yongbyon to obtain weapons-grade plutonium, and by a secret uranium enrichment programme. The CIA believes North Korea probably already has half a dozen nuclear devices, maybe more.

This time, the omens are marginally more encouraging. Pyongyang's delegation is already in the Chinese capital, and the agenda for the talks is tightly framed, focusing on the nuclear issue, and excluding matters such as the North's human rights record and the vexed question of Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s.

But the North's main objective all along has been to secure bilateral talks, and a bilateral deal, with Washington, and the call for a peace treaty may well be a new tactic to secure this end.

The Korean War, which led the US into military confrontation with China, ended with an armistice on 27 July 1953, establishing a demilitarised zone separating the North and the South. This now straddles one of the most heavily armed regions on earth. Technically, the belligerents of half a century ago are still at war.

The last attempt at a peace treaty collapsed in Geneva in 1997, largely because of North Korean demands for the US to withdraw its 35,000 troops from South Korea as a precondition for any treaty.

Yesterday, a North Korean foreign ministry spokesman abruptly returned to the theme. Replacing the armistice with a treaty, he said, "would put an end to the US hostile policy towards the DPRK [North Korea], which spawned the nuclear issue and the former's nuclear threat."

A peace deal would "give a strong impetus" to the six-nation talks on the nuclear issue, since a treaty would "automatically result" in the denuclearisation of the entire Korean peninsula, the spokesman added. It is assumed that US forces have nuclear weapons at their bases in the South.

Tuesday's talks are scheduled to be held in the walled-off Diaoyutai state guest house in Beijing. No closing date has been set for the discussions which will be moderated by China, the country with the greatest, albeit limited, influence on the reclusive regime in Pyongyang.

* Japan's Parliament has passed legislation giving the defence chief the authority to shoot down incoming missiles without approval from the Prime Minister or Cabinet, boosting a joint missile defence system Japan is working on with the United States.