U.S., China discuss North freeze

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U.S., China discuss North freeze

The United States and China have been holding behind-the-scenes discussions on bringing North Korea back to the nuclear nonproliferation treaty (NPT) to enable a return to dialogue, according to a high-level source familiar with foreign affairs and security matters here on Sunday.

“Recently, China has been feeling out the United States’ stance on [getting North Korea to agree] to freeze its nuclear program and rejoin the NPT as a condition for negotiating a peace treaty between North Korea and the United States,” the source told the JoongAng Ilbo, “in order to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue.”

A peace treaty would officially bring an end to the Korean War, which started in 1950 and concluded with an armistice agreement in 1953.

The source said Beijing’s proposal was “a more concrete” step than a peace agreement idea discussed between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during bilateral talks in Washington in February.

“This shows that the first step toward nuclear disarmament is a nuclear freeze,” he continued.

On Feb. 23, Wang and Kerry held talks over the adoption of a United Nations Security Council resolution on stiffer economic sanctions on Pyongyang for a nuclear test in January and a subsequent long-range missile launch.

In a joint press conference, Kerry said that Pyongyang “can actually ultimately have a peace agreement with the United States” if it is willing to “come to the table and negotiate the denuclearization.”

Pyongyang announced its withdrawal from the NPT, which it first joined in 1985, in January 2003. Since then, it has conducted four nuclear tests in 2006, 2009, 2013 and at the beginning of this year.

The treaty, which took effect in 1970, requires non-nuclear weapons states to forswear the development or acquisition of nuclear weapons. Five countries are recognized under the treaty as nuclear weapons states: the United States, Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom.

Diplomatic activity surrounding Pyongyang usually refers to its past pledges to dismantle its nuclear weapons program completely. It is a drastic change to consider asking Pyongyang to freeze its program rather than dismantle it and foreswear weapons of mass destruction.

Another source said that Washington “has not agreed to China’s proposal” and is sticking to its demand for the scrapping of Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

“However, China is proposing to the United States through many different channels the resumption of the six-party talks, which could include discussions of a peace treaty on the condition of North Korea’s nuclear freeze, a return to the NPT and accepting inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency,” the source said. “China’s proposal is based on its discussions with North Korea.”

The six-party talks among China, Japan, Russia, the United States and the two Koreas are technically about winding down and permanently ending the North’s nuclear weapons program. They have been stalled since late 2008, when Pyongyang walked out.

Many analysts have assumed that if they were restarted, they would assume a new focus beyond the ending of the nuclear weapons program.

In addresses to the ruling Workers’ Party’s seventh congress over Friday and Saturday, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un referred to limiting nuclear proliferation.

In an address to the congress carried by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency, Kim said Pyongyang will “sincerely fulfill its duties for the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons and work to realize the denuclearization of the world.”

He also emphasized that North Korea “will not use nuclear weapons first unless aggressive hostile forces use nuclear weapons to invade our sovereignty.”

“North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons in itself is a violation of the NPT, so it is questionable that other countries will allow North Korea to rejoin the treaty as if nothing happened,” said Choi Jong-gun, a political science and international studies professor at Yonsei University. “Even if there is progress in some negotiations, a considerable amount of backlash can be anticipated.”

The U.S. Department of State, through a spokesman Sunday, called on Pyongyang to “suspend all activities related to its nuclear and ballistic missile programs” and repeated its position to “abandon them in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner.”

BY JEONG YONG-SOO, SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]
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