Last week's talks underlined the painful truth that, right now, Pyongyang is holding most of the cards. The two principals leading the talks with Pyongyang, Washington and Beijing, are seemingly hamstrung. China is scrambling to find a new approach to its wayward client after being blindsided by the North's nuclear test on October 9, which was undertaken despite a specific request for restraint from Chinese President Hu Jintao. Fearful that putting pressure on the North's fragile economy could lead to an implosion that would send hundreds of thousands of refugees streaming into China's north east, Beijing has hardly any room to maneuver. Presumably this will lead to closer cooperation with Washington, a trend foreshadowed by chief U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill, who was noticeably lavish with his praise of his Chinese counterparts.
But the U.S. also has few choices. Most analysts say that military action is not even a real option at this stage. Nor does dangling a carrot seem to be very effective. After adamantly refusing to consider concessions as a means to get Pyongyang to cooperate, Washington for the first time last week reportedly gave a written pledge not to attack North Korea and proffered a package of financial aid. But the North was having none of it.
By the end of the week the frustration was evidently getting to U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill. "One day it's financial issues," the assistant secretary of state was quoted as saying, "another day it's something they want but they know they can't have, another day it's something we said about them that hurt their feelings." Hill returned to the U.S. for the Christmas break Saturday, suggesting that talks might resume early in the new year. Let's hope he has a good rest 2007 promises to be a long, long year.