Tough Opening Bids in North Korea Nuke Talks

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The opening bids are in, and somebody is going to have to fold if the high-stakes diplomatic game over North Korea's nuclear weapons is going to produce a result before Christmas: That was the time frame for substantial progress set by U.S. envoy Christopher Hill going in the six-party talks that reconvened in Beijing Monday, after having been stalled for over a year, during which North Korea proved it has some form of nuclear weapon by conducting an underground test.

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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Plainly, North Korea and the U.S. have very different ideas over what it would take to resolve the crisis, or at least in what order. Hill has made clear that the U.S. is running out of patience with North Korea and will not continue the diplomatic process on an open-ended basis, though he has indicated that the U.S. would be willing to "discuss building a peace regime and normalizing relations if North Korea dismantles nuclear programs."

But Monday North Korea's delegate Kim Kye-gwan demanded the lifting of U.N. sanctions imposed after the October nuclear test, as well as banking sanctions previously imposed by the U.S., before it halts its nuclear program — a typically hard-line opening stance for Pyongyang. He also insisted that the talks be about "arms reduction," i.e., that North Korea be accepted as a nuclear power. The U.S. has no intention of doing that, of course. But Pyongyang appears to be insisting that before there is haggling over the precise contents of an incentive package to coax North Korea to retreat from its nuclear-weapons status, it wants an end to what it calls the "hostile policy" of the U.S. — in other words, it wants Washington to abandon policies aimed at "regime change."

China, which is brokering the talks, has always made clear that Pyongyang will have to be given security guarantees by the U.S. as part of any soluion. Hill has also said the U.S. would be willing to create a working group to address the banking sanctions, which are a priority of the Pyongyang regime, whose financial operations have been severely disrupted by U.S. Treasury Department measures against banks used by the country in Asia. The financial pain those sanctions cause the regime might give the U.S. a measure of leverage, but only to the extent that they can be used as a chip in pursuit of a grand bargain. For the U.S., progress in the talks requires North Korea's moving quickly to implement some practical steps signaling its readiness to give up nuclear weapons — such as suspending its nuclear fuel production at Yongbon and placing its activities once more under international monitoring. But to do that, North Korea wants an end to the "hostile policy." And so on and so on.

The gulf between the positions of the U.S. and North Korea — and the importance of the banking sanctions and other issues extraneous to the nuclear standoff — vastly complicates the art of the deal in Beijing. But the fact that both parties are at the table suggests that neither has a good alternative to the search for a compromise: China, North Korea's key patron, has left Pyongyang in no doubt that its own economic interests and those of its most benign neighbors demand that it take the path toward denuclearization and easing tensions with the U.S. At the same time, with China and South Korea resolutely opposed to cranking up the sort of pressure that would hurt, and potentially topple, the regime, the U.S. has few policy alternatives beyond those already adopted.

Still, the real key may be that the six-party talks create a cover for the U.S. to hold separate direct talks with the North Koreans. Christopher Hill has made no secret of the fact that he'll be talking directly to the North Koreans, among others, and it may be in the discreet bilateral talks, particularly those involving various combinations of the U.S., North Korea and China, that the six-party process will succeed or fail. With the alternative proverbially too ghastly to contemplate, the rigid opening positions may still become more flexible.