North Korea said Wednesday that it decided to return to international nuclear talks to resolve U.S. financial restrictions aimed at choking the regime's access to outside banks.
China announced Tuesday that the North had agreed to end a boycott of the talks after a meeting in Beijing of the top envoys from the U.S. and North Korea.
The North's Foreign Ministry said Pyongyang "decided to return to the six-party talks on the premise that the issue of lifting financial sanctions will be discussed and settled between the (North) and the U.S. within the framework of the six-party talks."
North Korea has refused since November 2005 to return to the arms talks in anger over the U.S. financial restrictions, which blacklisted a Macau bank where the regime held accounts for its alleged complicity in counterfeiting and money laundering. U.S. officials had sought to rally other countries to prevent the North from keeping bank accounts, saying all transactions involving Pyongyang were suspect.
However, on Tuesday in Beijing, the U.S. agreed to discuss the financial restrictions at the resumed nuclear talks, which also include China, Japan, Russia and South Korea.
The North emphasized Wednesday in the statement carried by its official Korean Central News Agency that the breakthrough on returning to six-party talks was made possible by a bilateral meeting Tuesday with the U.S. in Beijing.
The ministry also alluded to its Oct. 9 nuclear test, noting that the North "recently took a self-defensive countermeasure against the U.S. daily increasing nuclear threat and financial sanctions against it."
The agreement was struck in a day of unpublicized discussions between the senior envoys from the United States, China and North Korea at a government guesthouse in Beijing. The U.S. negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, said the six-nation negotiations could resume as early as November or December.
“We took a step today toward getting this process back on track. This process has suffered a lot in recent weeks by the actions the DPRK has made,” Hill told reporters afterward. DPRK stands for Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the North’s official name. The last round of the six-nation arms was held in September 2005.
The agreement is one of the first signs of easing tensions since North Korea conducted the underground detonation on Oct. 9, defying warnings from both the United States and Japan and its staunchest ally, China.
It also marks a diplomatic victory for China and the United States, which worked closely together in the wake of the test, but especially for Beijing. Though stung by Pyongyang’s test, China had counseled against punishing North Korea too harshly, weakening a U.N. resolution sanctioning Pyongyang, and suggested leaving a path for diplomacy.
Bush: ‘I want to thank the Chinese’
President Bush on Tuesday welcomed the agreement.
“I am pleased and I want to thank the Chinese,” the president told reporters in the Oval Office, after meeting with Andrew Natsios, his special envoy on Sudan.
Hill said the China-U.S. effort was “one of the very important dynamics of the past weeks.”
Both the United States and North Korea showed flexibility at Tuesday’s meeting, Hill said, with Washington agreeing to discuss the financial sanctions Washington imposed on North Korea a year ago for alleged counterfeiting and money laundering.
Pyongyang, which had boycotted the negotiations for a year to protest the sanctions, did not make their lifting a condition for resuming the talks, Hill said.
At the talks, Pyongyang’s negotiator, Kim Gye Gwan, “made the point” that North Korea considered itself a nuclear power, Hill said. “I made it very clear that the United States does not accept the DPRK as a nuclear power and neither does China.”
Mixed reactions from other partners
Other partners in the talks — Japan, Russia and South Korea — had mixed reactions to the announcement.
South Korea, which like China has urged engagement with Pyongyang, and Russia were optimistic about the prospects of resuming the negotiations.
“The government hopes that the six-party talks will resume at an early date as agreed, South Korea’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Choo Kyu-ho said.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Alexeyev said that Moscow views North Korea’s decision as “extremely positive,” ITAR-Tass and Interfax news agencies reported.
But Japan, which feels threatened by North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, took a more skeptical line.
While Tokyo welcomed the prospect of a new round of talks, it “does not intend to accept North Korea’s return to the talks on the premise that it possess nuclear weapons,” public broadcaster NHK quoted Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso as saying.
Aso added that a resumption of talks “is conditional on North Korea not possessing nuclear weapons.”
Calls to the North Korean Embassy in Beijing seeking comment went unanswered.
China’s Foreign Ministry released a brief statement, the first word of the breakthrough, saying that an agreement was struck on North Korea’s rejoining the talks, but issued no other comment.
Hill cautioned that much work needed to be done to prepare for the resumption of talks. “We’re a long way from our goals here,” he said. “I have not broken out the champagne and cigars yet.”
Key in the coming days, Hill said, would be intense preparations by all parties to make sure a new round would deal substantively with an agreement reached at the last session of six-party talks in September 2005.
Among the issues would be how would North Korea takes steps to ultimately give up its nuclear programs, he said. Other issues, such as a South Korean proposal to provide electricity to the impoverished North and how to set up mechanism, perhaps a working group, to discuss the U.S. financial sanctions, also were likely be explored, he said.
Pyongyang had said it wouldn’t return to the negotiations until the United States desisted from a campaign to sever it from the international financial system. The United States refused and said the issue was unrelated.
To try and press its case, the North launched a series of missile in July — including a long-range model believed capable of reaching parts of the United States. Tensions rose when it staged the atomic test on Oct. 9.
Hill described intense backstage Chinese efforts to get the six-party talks on track, saying Beijing contacted Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice late last week to ask if she would dispatch him to Beijing for a three-way discussion with North Korea.
Hill, who had been in the South Pacific at a forum of regional governments, cut short a visit to Australia, arriving in Beijing late Monday for Tuesday’s talks.
A U.N. committee has been determining how to implement the sanctions over the atomic test, measures banning the North’s weapons trade.
U.S. seeking to apply pressure
Washington has been seeking to gather support for the sanctions, and getting the North’s top two trading partners — China and South Korea — to pressure the regime.
North Korea is believed to have enough radioactive material to make about a half-dozen bombs, but estimates vary due to limited intelligence about its nuclear program.
The apparent North Korean agreement followed a day of typically bellicose rhetoric from Pyongyang.
North Korea also warned South Korea on Tuesday against participating in a U.S.-led international drive to stop and search ships carrying weapons of mass destruction, saying involvement would bring about unspecified “catastrophic consequences.”
The warning released by Pyongyang’s official news agency came as South Korea is considering whether to fully participate in the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative aimed at interdicting shipments of weapons of mass destruction and other suspected cargo.
Seoul has been reluctant to take full part in the initiative out of concern it may anger North Korea and complicate efforts to resolve the international standoff.
Instead, it has sent observers to drills and attended briefings.