On January 20, the US Congress Committee on International Affairs heard a group of experts who, earlier this month, had visited Pyongyang, where their hospitable hosts demonstrated the achievements of the North Korean nuclear programme to them. The delegation included prominent specialists, such as former Los Alamos National Laboratory director Siegfried Heckler and Stanford University expert John Lewis.
The North Koreans have long been trying to show the Americans that since October 2002, when an international scandal erupted over North Korea, they have acquired "a nuclear deterrence potential", i.e. that they have processed 8,000 spent fuel rods from the Yonben research reactor into weapons-grade plutonium. The Americans have refused to believe in the North Korean nuclear bomb and it is these doubts that Pyongyang is trying to dispel.
It should be recalled that the Korean crisis began in October 2002, when US Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly paid a visit to Pyongyang following a two-year period of stagnation in US-North Korean relations. After a long silence, he declared that the North Koreans had admitted conducting nuclear research in violation of the 1994 agreement on North Korea halting its nuclear research in exchange for energy. Accordingly, Washington refused to implement the agreement further.
At this point, something extraordinary happened: Pyongyang did not openly deny that they had made any sort of confession and decided to take advantage of the scandal, "selling" the programme mentioned by Kelly to the Americans. For this, they really started implementing it in January 2003, or at least announced that they had. The other participants in Korean settlement - Russia, South Korea, Japan and China - chose not to accuse the Bush administration of spreading lies and provocations. Everyone needed an end to the crisis, not a scandal with the USA, even though international experts unanimously stated that North Korea did not have a nuclear bomb. Apart from that, no one was happy about the fact that, although North Korea did not possess the bomb before October 2002, the danger remained that it may very well appear if the two obstinate countries - the USA and North Korea - refused to sign an agreement as soon as possible.
There have been two underlying causes of the conflict all this time: the real one and the one reported to the public, i.e. that the Korean conflict is escalating along the lines of the Iraqi scenario; in other words, North Korea has a nuclear bomb and the crux of the matter is to disarm it. The Heckler-Lewis mission may put an end to this situation.
Strictly speaking, this is what bellicose North Korean diplomacy was after when the country invited the Americans to pay their visit: to force George Bush, at least at the end of his first term in office, to open talks with Pyongyang.
The question is what will happen now. The point is that the second round of talks between the six participants in Korean settlement, which was not held in December in Beijing, could, according to sources close to their organisers, be held even tomorrow. The subject of the talks, on which the sides could come to terms, has long been clear. It is the Losyukov plan, proposed by Russia's deputy foreign minister in January 2003. Its wording has been changed slightly. It provides for an end to North Korean military nuclear programmes in exchange for US and international economic assistance to North Korea. No one has proposed any fundamentally different schemes. Although there are differences between the sides - for example, the USA is demanding that North Korea's nuclear research be stopped first and only after that the talks be continued - none of the other parties in the talks takes this seriously. North Korea and the remaining four countries standing behind it propose a "one move for another" scheme, i.e. a procedure of actions for both the conflicting sides, guaranteed by all the rest. The sources claim that everyone understands that these differences, which once seemed to be insurmountable, can be solved without many problems.
None of the six countries is trying to prevent the others from reaching a compromise. Admittedly, Japan is trying to put on the agenda of the future talks an absolutely different problem: the issue of Japanese citizens kidnapped by the North Korean secret services. However, it is clear to everyone that this is not serious, either, and hence, it does not worry anyone. Even the man who irritates Pyongyang so much, James Kelly, who represented the USA at the last round of talks in Beijing, will not be taking any further part in them. In short, the scene is set for success.
The sources believe that the only problem is that various factions of the Bush administration have been unable to agree among themselves, while his term in office has practically run out. In the wake of Iraq, it has long been clear that the Korean situation will not be solved by military means. The question is how to reach the only possible solution, that is, return to the situation that existed in 1994 and admit that the whole scandal was a political fiasco for Bush.
If this decision is taken now, before the November presidential elections in the USA, the sides could sign an agreement very quickly, even serving it to voters in whatever convenient dressing (the other parties in the talks will not create problems for Bush because all of them are interested in his re-election).
China, which has assumed the difficult mission of hosting the Beijing talks and is the main driving force behind them, could play an important role in achieving this success. Recently, Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited the USA again, and not in vain. Wang Yi had already demonstrated his talents by stating at the end of the first round of the Beijing talks that the sides intended to meet again. The US and North Korean representatives, who had fallen out with each other and had not promised each other to meet again, made no objection.
Should Beijing succeed in making the sides sign agreement that Bush could claim as a victory, relations between the two leading powers of the present-day world, close as they already are, will become even closer.
If the US administration decides to delay the settlement of the problem again, the North Koreans will keep pushing it, just as they have done with the current "inspection".