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University researcher talks arms control with North Korea

Published: 3 September 2004

A defence policy analyst from the University of Southampton says the UK's decision this week to send a minister to North Korea could help bring the secretive Communist country in from the cold.

Research Fellow Dr Mark Smith of the University's Mountbatten Centre for International Studies has just returned from Beijing where he co-convened a meeting on missile issues in Northeast Asia. The conference was, unusually, attended by four senior officials from North Korea.

Delegates examined ways of limiting the spread of missiles capable of carrying weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and the development of missile defence systems. Officials, analysts and academics from China, North Korea, South Korea and Japan joined colleagues from the UK, US and the United Nations to discuss areas of common concern. The meeting was funded by the US Ford Foundation, and discussions are under way for a possible second meeting in 2005.

Exact details of North Korea's nuclear capabilities are not known outside the Stalinist state, but analysts believe that it may already possess a number of nuclear weapons. It certainly possesses short and medium range missiles, and there is even a distant possibility that a missile may be able to reach the west coast of the USA.

Dr Smith commented, "Although the North Koreans stuck to their official line and largely said what we expected them to say, there is no substitute for meeting and talking with people from different countries if we want to make progress.

"These informal off-the-record talks, under Chatham House rules, are invaluable as a means of discovering positions and exploring possibilities in advance of formal inter-Governmental discussions."

Only a few days before the meeting took place, the North Korean Foreign Ministry hit the headlines by calling President Bush an 'imbecile' and 'a tyrant that puts Hitler into the shade'. The tirade of insults was apparently sparked by George Bush referring to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il as a 'tyrant' during the US election campaign. Nonetheless, six-party nuclear disarmament talks, involving the US, Russia, China, Japan and North and South Korea, have been taking place, but thus far with little tangible agreement.

Dr Smith has organised three meetings to focus on missile proliferation concerns in different parts of the world. The first, held in spring 2004 and funded by the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office, involved India and Pakistan. The meeting was successful enough to merit plans for a follow-up meeting to be held next spring. The Beijing meeting was the second in the series, and the third will focus on the Middle East, scheduled to be held in Jordan early next year.

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