GENEVA (Reuters) - North Korea, under fire for its own nuclear programme, took the helm of the Conference on Disarmament for the first time on Thursday to a chorus of protests and called for the elimination of nuclear weapons.
The ascension of the secretive and Stalinist state to the monthly rotating presidency of the 65-member United Nations-backed talks got the cold shoulder from other countries and drew criticism from human rights groups and dissidents.
Canada did not attend the session, having promised to boycott the chairmanship of what it called a “major proliferator of nuclear weapons.
“Allowing an international outlaw to oversee international arms control efforts is just plain wrong,” Hillel Neuer, director of the Geneva-based group U.N. Watch said in a statement.
“North Korea is a ruthless regime that menaces its neighbours and starves its own people and should not be granted the propaganda coup of heading a world body dedicated to peace.”
So Se Pyong, North Korean’s ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, did not refer to the controversy as he chaired the talks, attended by all other delegations including South Korea and the United States.
The mercurial North conducted its second nuclear test in 2009, triggering U.N. sanctions that cut off a lucrative arms trade, further squeezing its moribund economy.
Human rights groups held a protest outside the U.N. in Geneva on Tuesday, displaying what they said were drawings of North Korean prison camps made by survivors.
Anti-Pyongyang activists have voiced outrage at its role in the sole multilateral disarmament negotiating forum.
“Whenever there was such a situation in the international community, the North Korean regime has used it as propaganda,” Kim Jooil, a former army captain who defected in 2005, told a news briefing in Geneva earlier this week.
“Confirming the legitimacy of the North Korean regime is going to perpetuate the state of slavery of North Korean residents,” he said.
Diplomats say the forum’s president plays a largely ceremonial role of facilitator and must not abuse his position.
“If he had been making propagandistic use of it, it would be alarming,” said a diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.
So’s deputy Ri Jang Gon told the body: “The DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) remains consistent in its support for total and complete elimination of nuclear weapons in the world and is fully committed to this goal.”
Ri called for political will to overcome the impasse at the forum that has been deadlocked for over a decade.
It has been unable to launch negotiations on any issue since clinching the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty banning underground atomic explosions. Halting production of fissile material (plutonium and highly-enriched uranium) is widely considered as the next step in global nuclear disarmament.
Pakistan has blocked the required consensus for launching fissile material negotiations, insisting that existing stocks should also be included to counter what it says is India’s strategic advantage, according to diplomats and U.N. officials.
Norway’s envoy said bluntly that the conference, which includes all the known and suspected nuclear powers, had become “dysfunctional.”
The United States and others have suggested that it may be time to bring negotiations on fissile material outside of the Geneva forum, at least initially.
Ri did not refer to North Korea’s nuclear programme or prospects for resuming six-party denuclearisation talks between the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia.
A 2005 agreement spells out a process in which North Korea will scrap its nuclear progamme in exchange for economic and energy aid and diplomatic relations with the United States and Japan, but international talks collapsed two years ago.
North Korea said on Monday that it had agreed to further dialogue with the United States and repeated it was willing to resume regional nuclear disarmament talks at an early date, without preconditions.
Both Pyongyang and Washington called the discussions, the first such contact in four years, “constructive.”
Editing by Sitaraman Shankar