Denuclearization first, then talksNorth Korean leader Kim Jong-il told his Russian counterpart that his country is ready to return to six-party denuclearization talks without any preconditions and will consider imposing a moratorium on production and testing of nuclear material.
Kim crossed into Russia last weekend for a summit with Dmitri Medvedev. The two leaders agreed to launch a special committee on construction of a natural gas pipeline linking Russia, North Korea and South Korea.
This is North Korea’s expression of its willingness to return to the negotiating table without any conditions and offer to temporarily cease its nuclear weapons program represents its most eager rhetoric to date on recommitting to disarmament talks.
North Korea may have gained nods from its traditional socialist allies China and Russia, but the other members of the six-party platform - South Korea, the United States and Japan - maintain that its proposals are not enough to reactivate the talks.
They demand practical and concrete actions from North Korea demonstrating its will to disarm such as closing nuclear facilities or allowing re-entry of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, primarily because it is likely there will be differences in what Kim promises and what he actually does.
The six-party members have agreed that the talks can restart after incremental steps are taken, starting with bilateral meetings between the two Koreas and separately between North Korea and the United States. Two bilateral meetings have already taken place.
The members will now have to coordinate their positions in the wake of Kim’s comments. If South Korea and the United States stick to the demand that North Korea meet all preconditions, the campaign to denuclearize North Korea won’t likely proceed any further.
Kim and Medvedev also discussed the mammoth pipeline project.
The project envisioned by Russia would transport 10 billion cubic meters of natural gas to the two Koreas. But it depends on mutual trust between the two Koreas. South Korea cannot agree to the business if it fears North Korea can sever the pipeline at any time.
The business would be win-win for all parties. But it will not be realized unless there is progress in inter-Korean relations and the nuclear issue. Joint ventures can only be pursued when the two countries establish mutual trust after denuclearization.