Why the Six-Party North Korea Talks Failed

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Here's a no-brainer prediction for 2007: North Korean negotiators will spend the year driving their American counterparts crazy. They will also manage to squeeze some concessions out of the U.S. while giving nothing substantial away themselves, and in the meantime continue developing an arsenal of nuclear weapons. That may sound a little pessimistic; after all, Pyongyang did return to the negotiating table this week after boycotting the talks or nearly a year. But after the resumed six-party talks aimed at bringing the North's nuclear program to an end concluded in Beijing, Friday, it was depressingly clear that Dear Leader Kim Jong-il is in no hurry to end his newly-minted membership in the nuclear club. Pyongyang's delegates refused to even discuss the nuclear program, instead insisting that the talks first solve the issue of some $24 million in North Korean funds that are frozen in a Macau bank account at Washington's behest. The North Koreans even threatened to raise the stakes: After five days of stonewalling, North Korean delegate Kim Kye Gwan told reporters that in response to Washington's "carrot and stick" approach, the North would adopt a "dialog and shield" approach, adding ominously that by "shield," Pyongyang meant that it would "further improve our deterrent." That was a code word for one thing that no one wants to see: a second, and likely bigger, nuclear test.

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.