Why Talking May Only Make the North Korea Situation Worse

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Negotiators: U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly and Japan's Mitoji Yabunaka in Beijing

Three weeks ago, President Bush expressed confidence in a diplomatic solution of the North Korea nuclear crisis. The country had just dropped its insistence on one-on-one talks with the U.S. and had accepted Washington's demand that the two principal protagonists be joined at the table by South Korea, Japan, China and Russia. "In the past it was the lone voice of the United States speaking clearly about this," Bush told reporters on August 1. "Now we'll have other parties who have got a vested interest in peace on the Korean Peninsula." But as the six-way talks got underway in Beijing, Wednesday, optimists were hard to find. The best that could be hoped for, the consensus among diplomats held, was that the parties will at least agree to keep talking. So far, the North Koreans have raised the stakes on the U.S. by announcing new nuclear achievements, and there are considerable grounds for fearing that Pyongyang may once again play hardball. If so, the U.S. will hope that the exercise at least impresses on the host nation, China, the need to crank up the pressure on its wayward protege.

The obstacles to reaching agreement in Beijing are monumental. The four additional parties to the talks are in agreement with the U.S. in demanding an immediate and verifiable halt to North Korea's nuclear weapons program, but they are also sympathetic to Pyongyang's demand for guarantees that it won't be attacked by the U.S. The Bush administration is reluctant to offer any concessions, which would in effect reward North Korea's violation of previous treaties. By assembling a coalition of nations capable, by virtue of their economic ties to North Korea, to press Pyongyang to desist from going nuclear, the Bush administration may have also raised the pressure on the U.S. to, as China's official Xinhua news agency put it on Wednesday, address North Korea's "legitimate security concerns."

Bridging political chasms with ambiguous language is how diplomats earn their living, but the issue of security guarantees to North Korea goes to the heart of the Bush administration's internal divisions over how to deal with a Stalinist state named by President Bush as part of his "Axis of Evil" — should the U.S. seek a new agreement that rewards North Korea with aid for its stricken economy if it agrees to scrap its nuclear program and submit to a tight and intrusive inspection system, or should it seek regime change in the belief that getting rid of the dictator Kim Jong Il is the only surefire way to stop his nuclear program. The mixed messages from Washington and visible infighting in the Bush administration suggests that right now U.S. policy towards North Korea lacks coherence.

Secretary of State Colin Powell has suggested the U.S. could provide some form of written assurance to satisfy North Korea's security concerns, although not a full- fledged non-aggression pact. But President Bush has repeatedly warned, even on the eve of the current talks, that Kim Jong Il cannot be trusted to keep agreements, and the White House came out in support of a speech by the arch-hawk Undersecretary of State for Non-Proliferation John Bolton that described Kim as a "tyrant" keeping his people imprisoned in a "living hell" and warned against giving in to Pyongyang's nuclear "extortion." That speech, a U.S. diplomat told TIME, "basically called for regime change," and that's in line with the neo-conservative chorus in Washington who have repeatedly warned against any "appeasement" in the form of security guarantees that keep an odious regime intact. Just last week, key State Department North Korea expert Jack Pritchard, who had long served as point man in contacts with Pyongyang, resigned in the wake of complaints that he'd told the North Korans that Bolton had expressed personal views. No, said the hawks — and the White House concurred — Bolton spoke for the administration. But his perspective doesn't exactly lend itself to the pursuit of an agreement with North Korea, and the Chinese and South Koreans fear that the U.S. may simply be going through the motions of negotiation as a prelude to a more confrontational stance. Even if that may be overstating the case, clearly the Washington policy stalemate over whether to oust the North Korean regime or rehabilitate it has nobody in the region expecting much progress from the talks in Beijing.

But even if the Bush administration had reached consensus over the idea of offering North Korea security guarantees and economic aid in exchange for a verifiable nuclear disarmament by Pyongyang, it's far from clear that that the North Koreans have any intention of genuinely renouncing nukes. They've broken four previous agreements to get this far, and many U.S. and South Korean officials conclude that the North Korean regime may have decided to pursue a nuclear deterrent as the guarantor of its survival irrespective of the diplomatic state of play. After all, it's logical to assume that those countries currently talking to North Korea in the hope of stopping it going nuclear aren't going to turn their backs on Pyongyang once it demonstrates an actual nuclear capability by testing a weapon. The North Koreans have certainly given the Bush administration every reason to doubt their bona fides.

Regime-change, of course, is not an easy policy option. The U.S. military has concluded that hundreds of thousands of Koreans on both sides of the border and thousands of Americans might die in a direct military confrontation, and the only effective non-military forms of pressure — such as economic strangulation — require China's active cooperation, as the supplier of the bulk of North Korea's energy and much of its food. But as much as China fears that a nuclear-armed North Korea might prompt Beijing's key regional competitor, Japan, to go nuclear, it may currently fear the chaos brought on by the collapse of Kim Jong Il's regime even more. Beijing and Seoul are looking to resolve the crisis by reviving and tightening up the 1994 agreement under which North Korea undertook to refrain from developing nuclear weapons in exchange for economic aid. But the U.S. has shown little interest in reviving a failed agreement, and is insisting that the North Koreans agree to unconditional disarmament as a precondition for further talks. Pyongyang won't drop its nuclear deterrent without security guarantees, and the standoff continues, leaving little room for optimism over this week's talks. Diplomats hope that the U.S. and North Korea can at least be persuaded to agree to swap security undertakings for a nuclear freeze for the duration of a negotiation process, on the assumption that a comprehensive agreement could take years. But even such a limited deal could be elusive in the short term.

The Beijing talks are more likely to produce a protracted stalemate. Pyongyang, might continue racing ahead with its nuclear program and eventually testing a weapon. The U.S. meanwhile is instituting plans to intercept North Korean shipping on the high seas in order to choke off the export of drugs and missiles that are estimated to earn Pyongyang up to $1 billion a year. Washington is also pressing Beijing to accept the construction of large, U.S.-funded refugee camps along its border with North Korea, designed to speed the collapse of Pyongyang's regime. But the North Koreans have warned that they could respond by initiating armed conflict. In diplomatic tradition, it's always preferable to have the parties to a conflict talking rather than fighting. In the case of the North Korea crisis, however, the fact that they're talking may not mean that they're avoiding a showdown.