U.S. and North Korea Agree to Talk, but About What?

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HWANG KWANG-MO/AFP

South Korean protesters wear masks during an anti-US demonstration in Seoul

Now that the U.S. has agreed to resume talks with North Korea, the question is what they'll talk about. During his visit to South Korea for consultations over missile defense, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage made clear Thursday that Washington would hold talks with Pyongyang "in the near future" once the Bush administration had completed its review of Korea policy. He also made public a letter from President Bush to South Korea’s President Kim Dae Jung promising to "strongly support the South’s engagement policy on the North." The statements are clearly intended to undo some of the diplomatic damage done during President Kim’s visit to Washington in March, when President Bush had appeared to distance himself from the South Korean leader's policy of rapprochement with the North, and had openly expressed skepticism over Pyongyang's good faith.

President Bush may simply have been thinking out loud, but his remarks were widely interpreted as a humiliation of the South Korean ally who had invested all of his political capital on promoting North-South reconciliation. President Kim's "Sunshine Policy" also had the backing of Washington's other key regional ally, Japan, and the Bush administration would not find much regional support for taking a harder line against Pyongyang. Armitage's remarks reveal an effort to smooth over any feathers ruffled by the President's initial comments.

But while the Bush administration may be softening its tone, it hasn't yet signaled whether it plans to pursue the policies of the Clinton administration, which were premised on offering economic and technological aid to North Korea as an incentive for Pyongyang to end its nuclear and missile programs. Conservative Republicans had long pilloried that policy as giving in to extortion, and administration officials had signaled in March that the Bush team wants to reopen talks on the 1994 agreement under which the U.S. and Japan undertook to provide energy aid and help North Korea build civilian nuclear reactors if the Koreans ended a nuclear program that could equip them with weapons-grade plutonium. Administration officials were unhappy at the level of verification provided for in the treaty, but North Korea may be reluctant to reopen discussion on a done deal. Pyongyang wants to move forward on talks over an agreement to end North Korean missile testing in exchange for a new package of aid, but President Bush’s remarks in March suggest a skepticism in Washington over a policy of bribing North Korea’s President Kim Jong Il to act the responsible global citizen.

The North recently undertook to extend its freeze on missile testing — a smart move at a time when Washington is using Pyongyang as Exhibit A in its efforts to convince U.S. allies of the need for missile defense — but says it won't schedule any more talks with South Korea until the U.S. has completed its policy review.

In other words, while the administration has undertaken to talk to North Korea, it hasn't yet formulated its own policy. And that may mean that whatever conversation it holds with Pyongyang later this year could still be rather terse, and brief.

—With reporting by Massimo Calabresi and Jay Branegan/Washington