Rough sailing ahead for the six-party talks.

Looks like 2009 would be a tough year for the six-party talks on the North Korean nuclear crisis.

A Japanese newspaper has reported that a senior North Korean diplomat has stated that Pyongyang would halt the process of dismantling its nuclear facilities unless Japan “implements heavy fuel assistance” to the hermit regime.

It can be remembered that right after the appointment of conservative Taro Aso as Japan’s prime minister this year, Tokyo announced that it will no longer extend fuel aid to North Korea unless progress is made on the abductions issue. In turn, North Korea has accused Japan of not fullfilling its end of the bargain, claiming that fuel aid has already been agreed upon in the negotiations.

The abductions issue has been a very thorny problem in the six-way talks. Domestically, there is public outrage in Japan over Pyongyang’s kidnapping of thirteen Japanese civilians during the Cold War and its refusal to provide conclusive evidence proving the abductees’ death or to investigate the abduction cases. But in the international community, Japan’s insistence of making the abduction cases an issue in the six-party talks have been met by disdain; many feel that the problem is should be a bilateral issue between Tokyo and Pyongyang and should not complicate the resolution of the nuclear stand-off, which has greater relevance to regional stability.

The way Pyongyang is acting seems like it desperately needs Japan’s fuel aid. But even with pressure from the other parties to the six-way talks, it is doubtful that Tokyo would reverse its stance. The government of Taro Aso is politically unstable, and his Liberal Democratic Party is struggling to gather its support base in preparation for a possible snap parliamentary elections or the Septmeber general elections. Aso’s popularity, which the ruling party has been relying on to defend its turf against the emerging resilient opposition, has been diminishing fast. Changing his hawkish stance on the abduction issue would surely piss off the families of the abductees and, more importantly, the conservatives that form a significant part of his support base. And this would be a political blow Aso cannot afford.

Unless a reallignment in the domestic power structure in Japan occurs, or another nation steps in to give Kim Jong-il his fuel, we can expect a deadlock in this area of the negotiations.

To make matter worst, the United States itself, which just a couple of months ago removed Pyongyang off its anti-terror list, is getting frustrated with the way the North continues to refuse verifying the accuracy of information it disclosed about its nuclear program. This refusal proves that the North Koreans are hell-bent on just prolonging the crisis so it could get more concessions.

Are we seeing a situation that could lead to the collapse of the talks? We don’t know yet. But we know that contrary to what the Bush administration had assured us, the resolution of the North Korean nuclear crisis is far from over.

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