BEIJING, December 8 – Senior envoys from six countries gathered in Beijing for talks on North Korea’s nuclear drive Monday, amid gloom about the prospects for progress after the communist state said it would snub Japan.,
The talks, likely a last-ditch effort by the administration of outgoing US President George W. Bush to move ahead on one of its most drawn-out diplomatic issues, were expected to begin at 3:00 pm (0700 GMT), the Chinese host said.
However, the chances of progress on dismantling the North’s nuclear weapons programme have been badly undermined by Pyongyang’s refusal to recognise Japan as a participant, envoys admitted.
"I am afraid nobody among my counterparts saw any optimism in the prospects of the upcoming six-party talks," South Korea’s chief delegate Kim Sook warned Monday.
"So, we are going to do what we are going to do. Let’s wait and see."
He told reporters he hoped the North Koreans were not "dragging their feet" waiting to gauge the stance of the incoming administration of President-elect Barack Obama, who assumes office in January.
The talks group the United States, the two Koreas, China, Russia and Japan, but the North’s apparent refusal to deal with the latter could pose a serious obstacle for the talks at the Diaoyutai State Guest House in western Beijing.
North Korea said Saturday it would not recognise Japan’s participation in protest at Tokyo’s refusal to provide energy aid under an accord that offered Pyongyang energy and diplomatic concessions in return for denuclearisation.
"We will neither treat Japan as a party to the talks nor deal with it even if it impudently appears in the conference room, lost to shame," the communist country’s foreign ministry said in a statement.
Chief US negotiator Christopher Hill said late Sunday that North Korea’s position was "definitely not changing anything for us."
Before heading for talks Monday, he expressed only modest expectations for the negotiations.
"We’ve prepared well for the meetings so we’ll see if it’s possible to get anything done. We’re not trying to solve all the problems," he said.
"Like all six-party meetings, it’s going to be a difficult negotiation."
The latest round of six-party talks was scheduled to discuss how to verify North Korea’s declaration of its nuclear facilities.
Under a landmark 2007 pact, Pyongyang agreed to disable facilities at its plutonium-producing Yongbyon nuclear complex and reveal its atomic activities.
In return, it was to get one million tonnes of fuel oil or energy aid of equivalent value. About half has been delivered.
However, Japan has withheld its share until North Korea accounts fully for Japanese nationals kidnapped by Pyongyang during the Cold War.
The North has admitted it seized Japanese to train its spies, and in 2002 let five return. It insists the others are dead, but Japan believes they are alive.
In October, after an apparent agreement on verification procedures, the United States said it would drop North Korea from a terrorism blacklist, and the North reversed plans to restart its plutonium-producing nuclear plants.
Nevertheless North Korea, which tested an atomic weapon in October 2006, is now opposing the idea of atomic samples being taken away by inspectors.