Hopes low, dogged by protests, posturing

Diplomats arriving in Beijing for six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program hastened to play down hopes for an agreement, in the wake of protests in Japan and pre-talk posturing by Pyongyang, RFA reports.

"The chances of reaching agreement in this present round of negotiations in Beijing are, unfortunately, very poor," Russian deputy foreign minister Alexander Losyukov said. Earlier, he said the Russian delegation, which he heads, would "strive to propel the talks to go on."

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly--leading the U.S. delegation--arrived late Monday, after the South Korean and Japanese negotiators. "We'll be getting going on Wednesday morning and we're looking forward to a direct and fair exchange of views," Kelly said.

But the talks have already been overshadowed by anti-North Korean protests in Japan, which greeted the arrival of a North Korean ferry that has stirred anger about Pyongyang's abduction of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s.

The Mangyongbong-92, the only direct passenger link between Japan and North Korea, arrived in the port of Niigata on Monday for the first time in seven months. Many Japanese oppose the ship's visits because of allegations it has been used for spying and smuggling missile parts.

Protesters shouted: "Give us back the abducted children and families!" and "Go home! Go home!" Among the demonstrators were the relatives of people who were snatched by North Korean agents decades ago to train spies. In South Korea, small but violent scuffles between North Korean journalists and South Korean protesters marred the atmosphere surrounding the World Student Games at the weekend.

North Korea has toughened its stance ahead of the negotiations, accusing the United States of giving up on the talks before they have begun, and making plans to take the issue to the UN Security Council regardless of the outcome.

Diplomats in Beijing said such last-minute posturing was to be expected from North Korea.

The three-day talks will take place in Beijing's Diaoyutai guest house, hosted by Chinese vice foreign minister Wang Yi. The Japanese delegation is led by foreign ministry official Mitoji Yabunaka, while South Korea's deputy foreign minister Lee Soo-hyuck will represent Seoul.

�It�s only the beginning of a long-term negotiation [with North Korea].� Lee said.

The North Korean team will be led by deputy foreign minister Kim Yong-il, a relatively junior official who worked closely with Beijing to set up the talks. The choice of Kim, rather than a diplomat better known to U.S. officials, could signify Pyongyang's intention to use the talks to align itself more closely with Beijing.

Kim formerly served as his ministry's director-general of Asian affairs. His deputy, Ri Gun, was the top delegate to the last round of three-way nuclear talks in April, involving North Korea, the United States and China.

Fears that Pyongyang was just months away from developing nuclear weapons intensified last October, after North Korean officials said the country had succeeded in re-processing spent nuclear fuel rods--a crucial step in the building of a nuclear bomb using enriched uranium.


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