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'N Korea launch sets back disarmament talks'

world Updated: Apr 06, 2009 09:38 IST
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North Korea’s rocket launch has likely poisoned the atmosphere for a quick resumption of international talks aimed at dismantling the secretive nation’s nuclear programmes, experts said.

North Korea on Sunday launched what it said was a communications satellite, an event that drew condemnation from the United States and its allies who said it was a ballistic missile test in defiance of a United Nations resolution.

The launch comes amid another stalemate in a tortuous six-nation diplomatic effort aimed at dismantling North Korea’s nuclear programmes that began in 2003.

The talks, hosted by China and including the United States, South Korea, Japan and Russia, have been stalled since December last year after North Korea refused to agree on ways of verifying its claims on nuclear disarmament moves.

“It will definitely further delay the resumption of the next round of meetings, for sure,” said Professor Jing-dong Yuan, a non-proliferation expert at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California.

A key reason is the tough reaction from the United States and its allies, who have taken the issue to the UN Security Council, saying the launch violates a resolution banning North Korean missile activity.

“Then the question is, can the US get China and Russia to support sanctions?” said Adam Segal, a China expert with the Council on Foreign Relations, a US-based think tank.

“If they can, then the future process looks greatly complicated.”

The initial US and Japanese efforts to secure a united response at the United Nations failed on Sunday with China and Russia calling for restraint so as to not endanger the six-party talks.

Experts say the unpredictable North Korean regime is using the affair to seize the attention of US President Barack Obama’s new administration, possibly to extract concessions, before agreeing to resume the six-party talks.

The talks culminated in a landmark deal in 2007 under which Pyongyang agreed to scrap its nuclear programmes in exchange for energy aid.

But after years of North Korean brinksmanship -- and with a UN resolution now possibly in violation -- the patience of the other countries in the disarmament effort has likely worn thin, said Yuan.

“I doubt North Korea can wring concessions from the others. On the contrary, it may face further isolation, if not additional sanctions,” he said.

Torpedoeing the six-party talks, however, might be just what North Korea wants, said Jonathan Pollack, an expert on the country at the US Naval War College.

Pollack noted that the prestige-conscious North Koreans have long sought direct talks with Washington.

“My expectation is that North Korea will seek in the near term to secure direct talks with the US. I think it extremely unlikely, however, that the US would proceed through bilateral talks,” he said.

The possibility that the launch could lead to an indefinite breakdown in the six-party process is deeply worrying from a proliferation standpoint, said Daniel Pinkston, a senior analyst in Seoul with the International Crisis Group.

“One of the things we are concerned about is an over-reaction that could exacerbate the situation and set the talks back even more,” he said.

The International Crisis Group issued a statement last week saying any launch should be met with a “calm, coordinated response from the key actors to raise pressure on Pyongyang to return to the talks”.

Most analysts, however, said the strong international desire to defang North Korea, combined with the dire economic straits face by Pyongyang, will likely bring all sides back together at some point.

“Over time I think all the parties will get over this and return to the negotiating table,” said Yuan.

US nuclear envoy Stephen Bosworth indicated as much Friday when he said the United States still hoped to return to the talks within a “reasonable” period, whether or not Pyongyang launched a missile.