Washington's Patience Is Limited in North Korea Talks

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Snagging a sixth round of six-party talks over North Korea's nuclear program was a much-appreciated Christmas bonus for the Bush Administration's beleaguered foreign policy team. If nothing else, it offers a positive note for year-end reviews that are sure to be freighted with bad news from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Darfur, Somalia and sundry other trouble spots.

The Six-Party Meetings: Analysis and Issues

•Washington: Limited Patience

•North Korea: What Pyongyang Wants

•China: Feeling the Heat

•South Korea: Use Carrots, Not Sticks

•Japan: Abductions Cloud the Issue

•Russia: Trying to Look Relevant

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Still, top officials here are doing their best to lower expectations that the talks will bear fruit. Briefing the Washington press corps Wednesday, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill said that neither his sketchy preparatory talks with North Korean diplomats nor Pyongyang's communications with Beijing, its closest ally, have shed any light on the crucial question: Has the North made a strategic decision to abandon its nuclear weapons programs, as demanded by the other five parties to the talks, and the wider international community?

"At this point, I cannot tell you whether that choice has been made or not," Hill said. "What I know is they know what we need in this round. They know it has to be real. All the other parties know the basis of coming together is not to talk and not to party, but rather to achieve something real on the ground and that is the basis on which they have come to the meeting next week."

Hill intends to spend a week in Beijing, then to return to Washington for Chrismas. "So we'll see if we can get something done in that time frame," he said.

"The Chinese have also been in direct contact with the North Koreans on several occasions and they also have reason to believe that we will see some specific ideas for moving ahead," he added. Hill would not cite specifics, but observers expect that the six parties, particularly China, will insist that North Korea show its good faith through some immediate gestures, such as shutting down its nuclear reactors, which produce plutonium for nuclear devices.

The U.S. will be particularly wary of allowing North Korea's test of an apparently crude nuclear device in October to be used as leverage to win concessions beyond those agreed to in September 2005, when Pyongyang said it would abandon its nuclear weapons program in exchange for energy and economic aid.

"I think we have made it very clear to the North Koreans that we do not accept them as a nuclear power," Hill said. "And I think also importantly, the Chinese have made that clear." He said the U.S. expected strong support from China in its insistence that North Korea be given no further concessions as a result of its nuclear test. Indeed, U.S. officials believe that North Korea's behavior has strengthened the bond between the U.S. and China. Hill spoke of almost daily consultations between the U.S. and the Chinese foreign ministry: "Our two countries have a clear understanding of what we're trying to achieve," he said. "I would say our goals are pretty close to identical."

But, as Hill well knows, even China's leverage has limits: Pyongyang tested a long-range missile and a nuclear device over Beijing's express warnings. China punished the North publicly by supporting the U.S. in backing two sanctions resolutions at the U.N. Security Council. U.S. officials say Beijing also clamped down on North Korean financial transactions handled by Chinese banks, thwarting's the North's efforts to buy materials for its commercial manufacturing industries, and also closed its airspace to flights between North Korea and Iran. U.S. officials believe the financial strictures, which have a heavy impact on the cash-strapped regime despite occurring largely out of the public eye, are a sharp warning to Pyongyang over China's growing impatience, and may have had a major role in bringing Pyongyang back to the table.

For the U.S., at this stage, the result of the talks is more important than the process. "The purpose is not to talk," Hill said, "the purpose is to come to an agreement and have some effect on the ground. And so I don't want to be optimistic that we're going to achieve that, but that's certainly the objective. I don't want to get into the specific elements. You know, it is a negotiation except to say that I think we have a very considered view of what those elements should be and we have conveyed those in very clear terms to all the other parties and we've had already some very good discussions. So rather than predict how we're going to do, you can ask me next week." In other words, Washington wants the other parties to know that its patience for the six-party process to produce tangible results has clear limits.