North Korea's chief nuclear negotiator yesterday said his country is prepared to discuss the first steps towards denuclearization as six-party talks resumed in Beijing.
China was reportedly set to pass around a draft of a written agreement requiring North Korea to suspend its nuclear programs in return for economic and energy incentives at the plenary session in the afternoon.
Optimism prevailed in the Chinese capital as chief nuclear negotiators began their bilateral talks at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse.
"We are prepared to discuss first-stage measures," the North's nuclear negotiator Kim Kye-gwan said on arriving.
Media reports have suggested the North may agree to freeze its main nuclear reactor and allow international inspectors in exchange for energy aid.
The first-step measures would be based on the Sept. 19 Joint Statement of principles agreed in 2005. The agreement calls on North Korea to dismantle all existing nuclear programs in return for energy, economic aid, security guarantees and normalization of diplomatic relations.
The other five parties to the talks are South Korea, the United States, China, Russia and Japan.
The agreement, however, was shelved for over a year until last December as North Korea boycotted the negotiations citing Washington's "hostility" towards it.
North Korea's Kim said any moves by Pyongyang would be determined by the United States' attitude, news reports said.
"We are going to make a judgment based on whether the United States will give up its hostile policy and come out toward peaceful coexistence," he said, adding that Washington was "well aware" of what it had to do.
"I'm neither optimistic nor pessimistic because there are still many points of confrontation to resolve," Kim said.
The six-party talks follow a series of bilateral meetings between Washington and Pyongyang both in Beijing and Berlin last month, alongside separate talks on the United States' financial embargo against a bank in Macau suspected of helping North Korea circulate counterfeit U.S. dollars among other illicit activities.
The issue still remains unresolved but more financial talks are expected to take place between the two.
Earlier in the day, top U.S. envoy Christopher Hill said he sensed "a real desire to have progress" by the North Koreans at the talks, news reports said.
But Hill denied a report in a Japanese newspaper that the United States and North Korea had signed a memorandum during bilateral talks last month agreeing that Pyongyang's first steps toward denuclearization and U.S. energy support would begin simultaneously.
We did not sign anything," Hill told reporters, but added he was hopeful the Beijing talks would lead to progress such as working groups to discuss technical issues.
Another sticking point in this round of negotiations is Japan's hesitancy in giving North Korea aid without first addressing the abduction of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s.
Japan has maintained that the issue must be included in the agenda of the nuclear negotiations. North Korea has so far ignored Japan's demands and has avoided holding bilateral talks with Japan since the six-party framework was established in October 2003.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said yesterday, "If there is no progress in the abduction issue, Japan will not be participating in aid for North Korea."
South Korean envoy Chun Yung-woo had said on Wednesday that discussing who would provide the aid would be as tough as the negotiations with North Korea.
Japanese envoy Kenichiro Sasae, upon arriving in Beijing, expressed his country's commitment to the talks nonetheless.
"We are prepared to do our utmost toward this goal, and we strongly hope and are certain that North Korea has come prepared to do that," Sasae said.
No end date has been set for this round of talks, but Hill has said China expects the talks to last a few days and the countries would start reviewing a draft agreement Friday.
Russia's defense minister on Wednesday laid out an ambitious plan for building new intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear submarines and possibly aircraft carriers, and set the goal of exceeding the Soviet army in combat readiness.
Sergei Ivanov's statements appeared aimed at raising his profile at home ahead of the 2008 election in which he is widely seen as a potential contender to succeed President Vladimir Putin. But they also seemed to reflect a growing chill in Russian-U.S. relations and the Kremlin's concern about U.S. missile defense plans.
Ivanov told parliament the military would get 17 new ballistic missiles this year - a drastic increase over the average of four deployed annually in recent years. The purchases are part of a weapons modernization program for 2007-2015 worth about $190 billion.
The plan envisages the deployment of 34 new silo-based Topol-M missiles and control units, as well as an additional 50 such missiles mounted on mobile launchers by 2015; Russia so far has deployed more than 40 silo-based Topol-Ms.
Putin and other officials have described the Topol-M as a bulwark of Russia's nuclear might for years to come, and said it can penetrate any prospective missile defenses. Last week, Putin dismissed U.S. claims that missile defense sites Washington hopes to establish in Poland and the Czech Republic were intended to counter threats from Iran, and said Russia would respond by developing more efficient weapons systems.
In 2002, Putin and President Bush signed a treaty obliging both sides to cut their strategic nuclear weapons by about two-thirds by 2012, down to 1,700 to 2,200 missiles. But Russian-U.S. ties have since worsened steadily over disagreements on Iraq and other global crises, and U.S. concerns about an increasingly authoritarian streak in Russia's domestic policy.
"The Russian leadership believes that a nuclear parity with the United States is vitally important because it allows it to conduct an equal dialogue on other issues," said an independent military analyst, Alexander Golts.
A rising tide of oil revenues has enabled Russia to boost defense spending following a squeeze on the military in the 1990s. "The question now is whether the industries are capable of producing what the military needs," Ivanov said.
Analysts warn that building any sizable numbers of new weapons would pose a daunting challenge to the defense plants that received virtually no government orders for a decade following the 1991 Soviet collapse.
"Links to subcontractors have been broken, and the defense plants now need to rebuild them to produce weapons," Golts said.
Alexander Pikayev, a senior analyst at the Moscow-based Institute for World Economy and International Relations, said the military had failed to set the right priorities for weapons procurement in the past.
Russia's defense budget, which stood at $8.1 billion in 2001, nearly quadrupled to $31 billion this year, Ivanov said. While this year's military spending is Russia's largest since the 1991 Soviet collapse, it is still about 20 times less than the U.S. defense budget.
Ivanov said the military now has enough money to intensify combat training.
"Combat readiness of the army and the navy is currently the highest in the post-Soviet history," he said, adding the task now is to "exceed Soviet-era levels."
Ivanov said the military now has about 1.13 million servicemen, compared with 1.34 million in 2001. By 2015, the military plans to have about 1 million servicemen as Russia continues to reduce its bloated armed forces. "We can't go below that," he said.
The Kremlin has rejected liberals' calls to abolish the draft, saying Russia needs a large number of conscripts to protect its huge territory.
Ivanov said the weapons modernization program would allow the military to replace 45 percent of existing arsenals with modern weapons systems by 2015.
As part of the plan, the navy will commission 31 new ships, including eight nuclear submarines carrying intercontinental ballistic missiles, Ivanov said.
He played down recent failed launches of the Bulava missile being developed to equip these submarines. The Bulava, developed by the same design bureau that built the Topol-M, failed in three consecutive launches late last year.
"If we already had commissioned this missile and had failures, that would have been a nightmare," Ivanov said, adding that launch failures were "within the norm" in the testing phase.
He also said the government would decide in 2009-2010 whether to start the construction of a new shipyard for building aircraft carriers. Russia now only has one Soviet-built medium-sized aircraft carrier capable of carrying about 30 jets and helicopters.
1. U.S. Weighing International Fuel Bank for Nuclear Energy
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The United States voiced support for establishing an international nuclear 'fuel bank' to supply enriched uranium to countries seeking nuclear energy.
The bank would be created to help countries generate energy without having their own uranium enrichment capability, a process that heightens the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, expressed support for the idea during a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday.
'We want countries (to) have access to civil nuclear power,' Rice said. 'And, so, breaking that link between fuel cycle and having civil nuclear power with some kind of fuel bank, we think, would be a very good idea.'
Congressman Tom Lantos, the Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he was introducing legislation on Wednesday to establish an international supply chain.
'This bank will ensure that any state that keeps its nuclear nonproliferation commitments can get the fuel it needs without establishing its own fuel production facilities,' Lantos said at the hearing.
A supply centre would expose countries like Iran that insist on their own fuel process but deny they're pursuing nuclear weapons, Lantos said.
'If Iran is, instead, building a nuclear weapon, its nefarious intentions will be quickly exposed should it refuse to participate in this important project,' Lantos said, adding his legislation would 'put an end to the lame excuses of the government in Tehran.'
1. Nuclear Officials Seek Approval for Warhead - Design Would Require No Live Testing
Walter Pincus, Washington Post
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Officials of the National Nuclear Security Administration, which runs the nuclear weapons complex, said yesterday that they hope to receive administration and congressional authorization by the end of 2008 for the development and production of a warhead that could be deployed on submarine-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The NNSA requested $88 million in the fiscal 2008 Energy Department budget -- up from $27 million this year -- to complete detailed planning with the Navy based on a design produced in December by the nation's two nuclear weapons laboratories. The new funds would support design concept testing and could lead to production of the warhead for the Navy's D5 missile, 24 of which are carried on each U.S. Trident submarine.
A key aspect of the Reliable Replacement Warhead program is that the warhead could be certified to enter the U.S. nuclear stockpile without testing, acting NNSA Administrator Thomas D'Agostino and other officials said during a session with reporters.
U.S. moves to develop a new warhead come as the Bush administration is attempting to stop Iran and North Korea from developing nuclear weapons and trying to keep other countries, such as India and Pakistan, from expanding their stockpiles.
Last month, former secretaries of state Henry A. Kissinger and George P. Shultz, former defense secretary William Perry and former senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) called for the Bush administration to take the leadership in reversing reliance on nuclear weapons as a step toward preventing proliferation. In a Jan. 6 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, the four called for ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, taking nuclear weapons off alert, further reducing the number of nuclear forces and halting production of fissile materials.
Hans M. Kristensen, director of the Federation of American Scientists' nuclear information project, said yesterday that as a result of the op-ed piece, "There are a lot of new groups in Washington looking at what really low numbers [of U.S. warheads] would look like."
Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, said yesterday that she would hold a hearing next month on the RRW program to review the new design and to determine if it meets military needs and whether it would lead to a smaller and more reliable stockpile with no testing, a smaller nuclear production complex and increased dismantling of older warheads.
"There are significant questions in Congress about how all this holds together," Tauscher said.
The NNSA officials said that in the past, the nuclear weapons labs held underground nuclear tests at this stage in the development of a new warhead. But they said the new designs, by the Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories, could be certified without testing. Meanwhile, there needs to be detailed planning with the Navy before the NNSA could proceed to the engineering phase.
The warhead is being built to fit into the Mark V reentry vehicle used on the D5, which is commonly known as the Trident II missile. The joint decision last year by the Energy and Defense departments was to try to come up with a warhead that could be used on Navy and Air Force missiles.
NNSA officials said yesterday that production of the new warhead would allow for the Bush administration's plan to reduce the number of deployed nuclear warheads from about 6,000 today to between 1,700 and 2,200 by 2012, and also to lower the number in ready reserve. Critics of the Bush plan, which was set out in the 2001 Nuclear Posture Review, have claimed that far fewer numbers of nuclear warheads will be needed in the future because of the accuracy of precision-guided conventional weapons.
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