How North Korea's Diplomacy May Win Out

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in an undated photograph.

North Korea's surprise decision to return to the suspended six-party talks over its nascent nuclear program may be the first positive glimmer from the Korean peninsula in nearly a year, but any celebration by the U.S. or its allies would be way too premature. The multilateral negotiations have been replete in the past with false starts and dashed hopes. And it's not clear that all six parties — North Korea, South Korea, Russia, China, Japan and the U.S — are on the same page.

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Diplomats from China, North Korea and the U.S. announced the agreement Tuesday after informal talks in Beijing, and it came only a day after the top American general in South Korea warned that Kim Jong Il would likely conduct further nuclear and missile tests before the end of the year. Christopher Hill, the chief U.S. envoy to North Korea, told reporters in Beijing that talks could resume "in November or possibly December," and that Pyongyang had reaffirmed its commitment to a preliminary agreement that had been reached last September, shortly before the talks fizzled when the U.S. cracked down on illegal North Korean bank accounts in the Chinese city of Macau.

While Hill said that North Korea had made no pledge to refrain from further nuclear tests, Japan's conservative Foreign Minister Taro Aso reportedly said that Tokyo opposes resuming the talks unless Pyongyang agrees to renounce its weapons program. North Korea, still stinging from the sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council earlier this month, in the wake of its Oct, 9 test of a small nuclear device, is unlikely before talks even begin to surrender a bomb it spent decades and millions building.

When North Korea does return to the bargaining table, it's possible that the relatively solid coalition cobbled together by the U.S. in the aftermath of this month's test could easily break down, as China and South Korea reduce the pressure they put on Pyongyang even as the U.S. and Japan maintain a hard line.

The resumption of the talks, however, does represent a diplomatic win for China, which had been forced to take the central role in reining in its wayward ally Pyongyang. It was China's decision to support the U.N. sanctions that gave them teeth, and Chinese envoys made repeated trips to Pyongyang over the last several weeks. The message was clear: North Korea had embarrassed Beijing by testing a nuclear device despite repeated warnings by the Chinese against doing so. By at least agreeing to return to the six-party talks, Kim is preventing a loss in international face for his status-conscious friends in Beijing. The fact that China's rival Japan had begun making noises about the possibility, however remote, of starting its own nuclear program undoubtedly added to the pressure.

But in Japan there may be some trepidation over the new round of six-party talks. It won't escape the notice of officials in Tokyo that Japanese diplomats were apparently not involved in the talks that brought Pyongyang back to the table. Japan's new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose term started just two weeks before Kim's nuclear test, has built support with the Japanese public by standing firm against North Korea. If Abe is seen to go soft, he could lose his conservative political base, already shaken by his recent diplomatic overtures to Beijing and Seoul. While Abe has repeatedly declared that Japan has no intention of developing nuclear weapons, a rising chorus of influential voices inside and outside the government has begun raising the possibility. As unlikely as a nuclear Japan might seem, given the legacy of Hiroshima, all bets could be off if the U.S. is seen as cutting out its ally on the way to making a separate peace with North Korea.

Indeed, sowing discord among the five parties could be North Korea's chief reason to resume the negotiations. Despite U.N. sanctions, South Korea, which favors engagement with the North, has been slow to reduce aid and trade with Pyongyang, while the South Korean public is just as likely to blame President Bush for the nuclear standoff as it is Kim Jong Il. Even after the test, China and South Korea still fear a collapsing North Korea more than they do a nuclear one, while Japan and the U.S. would like nothing more than to see Kim gone. Russia, for its part, sometimes appears content to just observe the diplomatic gridlock.

The real test will be how all six parties react once the talks resume — assuming, of course, the talks really do resume this year. (It's best to mark your calendar in pencil when you're dealing with North Korea.) U.S. Ambassador to Japan Thomas Schieffer told a group of reporters earlier this month that North Korea simply returning to the talks wouldn't be enough for the U.S. to relax sanctions — a position Hill reiterated in Beijing.

But will China and South Korea really maintain pressure on the North if Kim's envoys at least keep up appearances at the talks? In the end, the resumption of multilateral negotiations could bring us back to the months of gridlock that marked the early stages of the six-party talks — with one small but crucial difference. This time, Kim Jong Il is definitely sitting on nuclear weapons, which means the price he could charge at the bargaining table has just gone up.