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China diplomat: North Korea gets 'money and respect'

By Jaime Florcruz
CNN
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Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news and analyze the stories behind the events. Here, CNN Beijing bureau chief Jaime Florcruz offers his insight on the deal reached this week with North Korea.

BEIJING, China (CNN) -- After six days of marathon talks in Beijing, the impasse on the North Korea nuclear issue is finally broken -- at least for now.

"There are a lot of mysteries about North Korea," said a Chinese diplomat, who asked not to be identified. "But it's no mystery that what they want most are money and respect."

And the new deal does just that. Even U.S. President George Bush on Wednesday said he is keeping a close eye on what Pyongyang does. He described the agreement as a "good first step" -- a phrase used by other top U.S. administration officials.

"It will be a great deal for the North Korean people if their government follows through with the agreement," Bush told reporters in Washington.

Few people believe that North Korea will fulfill all of its promises. After all, Pyongyang has sidestepped previous agreements.

But this week's deal, said Maurice Strong, a retired United Nations envoy, allows all parties to bide some time. For now, the chances that the United States and North Korea will be locked in a potential war seem unlikely.

Pyongyang gets what it 'asked for'

Under the agreement, negotiators struck a pact that could lead to Pyongyang giving up its nuclear program, assuming Bush and North Korean President Kim Jong Il stick to the sketchy one-page document. The deal was brokered through six-party talks involving China, South Korea, Japan, Russia, the United States and North Korea.

The agreement comes just four months after North Korea shocked the world by conducting its first nuclear test. Under the deal, North Korea has agreed to shut down its main plutonium production facility and to allow international inspectors in 60 days. In return, it will receive 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil.

When North Korea disables the reactor and declares all its nuclear programs, it will get 950,000 tons more.

"North Korea is getting what it had long asked for, and maybe a bit more," said Wenran Jiang, a political science professor at the University of Alberta.

The latest accord will bring the impoverished Communist state more than $300 million worth of aid. It will also get the security and respect that it craves. The United States has committed to remove North Korea from Washington's list of state sponsors of terrorism and to work toward improving official relations between Washington and Pyongyang.

Bush said he disagrees with American hardliners who have blasted the agreement.

"The assessment made by some that this is not a good deal is flat wrong," he said.

Chief U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill said Washington is satisfied with this week's deal and hopes it signals a change in Pyongyang's perception of the value of its nuclear program.

He said maybe North Korea now realizes its nuclear programs aren't "all they are cracked up to be."

"It's our hope, in fact, we insist, that this first step be followed by other steps," he told CNN.

China was the 'X-factor'

It is left to five working groups to separately negotiate crucial details within 30 days. Their agenda: denuclearization, normalization of U.S.-North Korea relations, normalization of North Korea-Japan relations, economic and energy cooperation, and peace and security in northeast Asia.

Much of the credit for this deal goes to the Chinese, who have hosted five rounds of talks since 2003. This time, some analysts say, China may have been instrumental in breaking the stalemate by leaning hard on North Korea.

"Perhaps the most significant voice that had been added to the table was China," Bush said in Washington.

China has been North Korea's main political and economic ally, providing its neighbor with trade, aid and most of its energy needs in the past 55 years. The United States and its allies have repeatedly urged Beijing to use its leverage to stop North Korea from becoming a nuclear power.

Beijing, however, preferred to cajole rather than arm-twist Pyongyang.

"China does not wish to see an implosion that would send North Korean refugees streaming into its borders," said the University of Alberta's Jiang. "Neither does it like to sit beside a unified Korea loyal to America."

Still, North Korea has become China's big dilemma. When Pyongyang defied Beijing's public urging to desist from conducting missile and nuclear tests last year, the Chinese leaders started to lean on its allies, albeit behind the scenes.

Days after the nuclear test in October, Chinese President Hu Jintao dispatched a special envoy to Pyongyang, who apparently convinced Kim to return to the negotiating table.

"We don't really know what was said, but China in so many ways warned North Korea that they risk total isolation if they don't change its behavior," said a Chinese analyst in Beijing who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"By doing so, our leaders are showing Bush that they're ready to play a positive role in global affairs, even if it means getting tough on erratic comrades."

Analysts also credit Washington for pursuing a more realistic stance.

"The deal marks the Bush administration's shift from a confrontational to a conciliatory posture," said Jiang. "It has chosen to accept a limited agreement that can lead to higher goals instead of insisting on tough demands all at once that are not achievable."

But a total and verifiable end to North Korea's nuclear weapons program will probably have to wait for more patient and persistent diplomacy.


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CNN Beijing bureau chief Jaime Florcruz

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