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19 Dec 2006 10:01
North Korea test-fired missiles on United States Independence Day, sought bilateral talks with the United States on Thanksgiving, and declared itself a nuclear power during Chinese New Year celebrations.
So envoys to six-party talks in Beijing and the not-so-merry throng of journalists tailing them might be forgiven for wondering whether North Korea’s penchant for “holiday” diplomacy will keep them far from home this Christmas.
In China, the holiday passes largely without celebration. But in the lobbies of the Western hotels where envoys give impromptu news conferences, there is some holiday spirit in the air.
Giant Christmas trees loom in the background, lights twinkling as US chief delegate Christopher Hill, Japanese counterpart Kenichiro Sasae and other envoys discuss weighty issues such as how to get Pyongyang to renounce nuclear bombs.
But at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, where the talks are taking place behind closed doors around a giant hexagonal table, the mood is decidedly more Ebenezer Scrooge than Santa Claus.
“Certainly there was nothing I heard in the plenary to fill me up with a sense of holiday spirit,” Hill said.
His comments followed a day of talks at which North Korea presented a list of demands it insisted be met before it would consider disarmament, including an end to UN sanctions, scrapping of US financial curbs and delivery of a light water atomic reactor.
Given the response from Hill, who declared Washington was running out of patience, Pyongyang negotiator Kim Kye-gwan might as well have been presenting a wishlist of gifts to Santa.
Room at the inn
Diplomats at the talks said China was working behind the scenes to get the negotiations wound up before the holiday.
Publicly, however, Beijing maintains there is still room at the inn if the need arises.
“If they are willing to spend Christmas here, we welcome them,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu.
North Korea has deliberately timed announcements and moves to coincide with holidays as a negotiating tactic, diplomats say.
“The North Koreans are very, very cleverly using holidays to put people in a weak position,” said one Western diplomat.
The latest crisis erupted in October 2002 when Washington said it had evidence the North was pursuing a clandestine programme to develop nuclear weapons.
International arms inspectors were expelled that New Year’s Eve.
In 2005, North Korea announced it was pulling out of the talks and declared itself a nuclear state in February, on the second day of the Chinese Lunar New Year.
Heading for a ding-dong?
Chinese traditionally travel far and wide to spend the New Year holiday with family over meals of dumplings. But Foreign Ministry officials had to turn around and return to Beijing, where lights burned at the ministry late into the night.
A senior Chinese diplomat, asked not long afterwards if the timing was aimed at China, grumbled: “Well, they did not announce it on Christmas”.
North Korea tried to schedule a meeting with Hill this year in late November, but the US envoy passed and instead left Beijing to get home in time for Thanksgiving, diplomats said.
It would not be the first holiday spent at the negotiating table.
Last year, the September talks at which North Korea agreed to scrap its nuclear weapons programmes in exchange for aid and security guarantees, dragged through Chusok, one of Korea’s most important holidays, and the Chinese mid-autumn festival.
China’s Foreign Ministry offered up traditional mooncakes to the talks envoys as a sweetener.
As talks drag on this week, it remains to be seen whether frustrated envoys will take Boxing Day literally. - Reuters
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