10 December 1997
(Next round will begin March 16, 1998) (990) By Wendy Lubetkin USIA European Correspondent Geneva -- The United States, China, North Korea and South Korea say their December 9-10 talks in Geneva "successfully inaugurated the negotiating process to achieve a permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula." In a joint statement read by session chairman Stanley Roth, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, the four parties said they agreed to hold their next plenary session beginning March 16 in Geneva. They also decided that an ad hoc committee will meet for "intersessional consultations" in mid-February in Beijing. The purpose of that meeting will be preparation of the next plenary session in March. Based on a random draw of three country names from a Swiss crystal bowl, the participants also determined that the second round will be chaired by The People's Republic of China, the third by the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and the fourth by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea). It had been previously agreed that the United States, which chaired the opening round, would chair the fifth round of talks. Speaking on behalf of all participants, Roth said the one and a half day discussion "proceeded in a cordial and productive atmosphere." After reading the joint statement, Roth took questions from the press. He described the talks as `the first meeting of a major international peace conference" which commenced with statements of opening positions by each delegation. Asked whether the withdrawal of American troops had been discussed, Roth responded: "The North Koreans made their positions clear, and I will leave it to them to explain their own positions at the conference." "The point I want to make is that this was not a debate. This was not a contentious meeting. This was an initial meeting." Asked whether a time frame for the negotiations had been set, Roth said there was "no discussion of a specific date." "I would say the talks were characterized by a sense of pragmatism and realism. There's a recognition that the issues are complicated and that the discussions will be somewhat lengthy in order to try to resolve them. But no one attempted to fix an arbitrary deadline for the conclusion of the talks." Later, a senior U.S. official told journalists the meeting "achieved a bit more than we might have expected from an inaugural meeting of this sort." "All four sides understood that this was going to be a difficult and lengthy process, because we were starting with such a gigantic gap in between us," the official said. Nonetheless the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, claimed to have been "pleasantly surprised to find that all four delegations came to this meeting with similar expectations and goals." Since some of the participants in the talks had never met one another "none of us could have known precisely what to expect from the chemistry," the official said. However, the official said, the talks proceeded "quite smoothly and in a businesslike way" and helped establish "that essential quality of respect at the human level among the four delegations." Asked whether North Korea would be allowed to bring up the issue of troop withdrawals in the talks, the official responded: "They have said that they intend to have a very serious discussion about the withdrawal of U.S. troops. And we have said that all parties could bring all subjects to the table. On that basis they agreed to come to these talks." The official stressed, however, that "it is the very clear U.S. position -- and the very clear ROK position -- that we are not there to talk about the withdrawal of U.S. forces in the Four-Party context." When North Korea raised the issue in the December 9-10 meeting, the United States responded that it did not accept North Korea's proposition that American forces are the root cause of tensions on the Korean Peninsula, the official said. On the contrary, the United States said the cause of tension could be found in North Korea's excessive reliance on military power and on the rather threatening rhetoric that has accompanied it. The official argued that common sense would indicate that the troops are not the root cause since periods of peak tension on the peninsula have not been linked to any change in troop strength. "So as a premise for discussion, it doesn't make much sense to accept their starting point, since it isn't factually accurate. But we do accept that there is a need to talk about military issues that could lead to a reduction of military tension," the official said. "If they want to talk about these U.S. troops at every single meeting, so be it," the official said. "But if we can make some progress towards our goals, then I think that is a fair trade." The official declined to estimate exactly how long the talks will last, but said the designation "years" was probably appropriate. As to the periodicity of the plenary sessions, the official said they are likely to take place at three or four month intervals. The United States believes the Four-Party process in and of itself can contribute to a reduction in tensions on the Korean Peninsula, the official said. The talks "establish a pattern of communication that has only been intermittent on the Korean Peninsula for a long time." "I don't believe that a frank discussion of even the things that the North Koreans want to raise is going to cause the talks to collapse or cause tensions to increase," the official said. Because I believe that we are all at this point understanding of the fact that communication has to come before agreement, that communication in itself has a value."