North Korea Summit Ends in More Bluster

BEIJING -- North Korea took less than a day to break one of the modest agreements it had made with the United States and four other nations during talks on its nuclear program: a promise not to say anything to aggravate the 10-month nuclear standoff.

"The talks only reinforced our confidence that there is no other option for us but to further increase the nuclear deterrent force," the North's Foreign Ministry said Saturday, its first official comment on the six-nation summit that ended in Beijing a day earlier.

North Korea has made similar threats before, and its trademark bluster often fails to draw urgent reactions. Instead, the region's dialogue partners, although they consider North Korea capable of such dangerous provocations as a missile test-launch, see the isolated country's harsh rhetoric as reflecting its entrenched mistrust of Americans and fear for the survival of its own totalitarian regime.

All six nations -- including China, Russia, South Korea and Japan -- say they want the Korean Peninsula free of nuclear weapons. But the question comes down to whether the countries at the center of the dispute, the United States and North Korea, can trust each other, and which should make the first move.

The talks boil down to whether the United States should provide free oil shipments, open diplomatic ties, provide economic and humanitarian aid and sign a nonaggression pact before North Korea feels safe to abandon its nuclear facilities, or should the North scrap its nuclear program before Washington improves relations.

"Both sides are leveling guns at each other. How can the DPRK trust the U.S. and drop its gun?" a North Korean spokesman said, using his country's official name, Democratic People's Republic of Korea. "What we want is for both sides to drop guns at the same time and coexist peacefully."

The United States considers North Korea untrustworthy and wants to avoid mistakes like the nuclear accord with the North in 1994.

Under that agreement, the North promised to freeze its nuclear activities in return for economic aid, including $4.6 billion for power plants still under construction. But U.S. officials said last October that North Korea admitted running a secret nuclear weapons program -- a claim North Korea now denies.

North Korea, too, says it cannot take any chances when dealing with the Americans. Kim Jong Il's regime sees its survival as depending on how profitably it plays its nuclear card.

"North Korea's statement [on Saturday] seems to be aimed at pressuring the United States, since it believes it hasn't gained anything from the six-way talks," said Koh Yoo-hwan, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Dongkuk University.

But no one believes instability on the Korean Peninsula serves anybody's interest. That raises the prospects of an eventual breakthrough.