The fourth round of six-party talks to resolve the Korean nuclear issue came to an agreement Sept. 19 after weeks of stalemate, mainly because the U.S. budged. Some see this as evidence that a hobbled Bush administration has been weakened internationally.

The talks, which involve the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), the U.S., Japan, China, South Korea and Russia, have stalled at different points.

At first, the Bush administration refused to recognize the DPRK as an independent and sovereign state. Later, the U.S. attempted to deny the right of the DPRK to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, as guaranteed under international law.

In the final six-party statement, the DPRK said that it was committed to returning to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), dismantling all of its nuclear weapons and allowing UN inspectors to return. North Korea had said before that it would agree to all of these things, provided the U.S. officially recognize its sovereignty and affirm its right to peaceful nuclear power.

The DPRK has also asked that it be given light-water nuclear reactors, which are less capable of producing weapons-grade material than conventional reactors, to replace its current nuclear facilities and to meet its growing electricity needs. The six parties agreed to discuss this.

Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wu Dawei told reporters that the DPRK and the U.S. promised “to respect each other’s sovereignty, enjoying peaceful coexistence and taking measures to normalize their relationship based on their respective bilateral policies.” The U.S. also said that it would not station nuclear weapons in Korea.

According to the South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo, China was a main player in this round of talks, putting pressure on the U.S. to move. “China flexed its political muscle,” the newspaper said.

“The U.S. worried it could become isolated in the talks with only Japan on its side and being blamed if talks broke down,” the South Korean newspaper said. “The Bush administration, weakened by the Iraq and Katrina fiascos and facing declining support at home, was more willing to compromise. This was the first time America hewed to the Chinese line rather than the other way around.”

While the U.S. has been hostile towards North Korea for decades, important steps were made towards peace during the late 1990s. In 1994, the U.S. and the DPRK signed the “Agreed Framework,” which stated that the DPRK would dismantle its nuclear reactors, and in return the U.S. would provide light-water reactors. While talks continued, no reactors were provided — causing the DPRK, suffering energy shortages, to restart its nuclear energy programs.

Shortly after his election, Bush declared the DPRK part of an “axis of evil.” The administration threatened the DPRK with nuclear weapons as part of its first-strike military policy in 2003. North Korea said this forced it to build nuclear weapons.

Both North and South Koreans have voiced concern that the U.S. may have nuclear weapons in South Korea, something the U.S. has denied. However, the Chinese news agency Xinhua reported that a lawmaker from South Korea’s current ruling Uri Party affirmed for the first time that the U.S. had kept nuclear weapons in South Korea at least until 1992.

Currently, the six-party agreement is little more than words on paper, as there are few specifics attached to it, and the Bush administration still has its share of hawks advocating regime change. However, the agreement does establish, at least in principle, a willingness to compromise. The talks are set to begin again in November to tackle concrete issues.

The DPRK’s Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) says North Korea is looking forward to peaceful relations with the U.S., but remains wary, saying that trust needs to be built between the two nations. KCNA quoted a Korean official who said that building a light-water reactor would be a trust-building step.

A North Korean delegate to the talks said, “The DPRK will feel no need to keep even a single nuclear weapon if its relations with the U.S. are normalized, bilateral confidence is built and it is not exposed to the U.S. nuclear threat any longer.”

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