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Analysis: NKorea's talk offer is dilemma for Obama

After being portrayed for years as a reclusive villain with nuclear ambitions, it's North Korea that wants to talk. And it's the Obama administration — champion of engaging adversaries — that does not.
/ Source: The Associated Press

After being portrayed for years as a reclusive villain with nuclear ambitions, it's North Korea that wants to talk. And it's the Obama administration — champion of engaging adversaries — that does not.

By insisting that it will not deal one-on-one with the North Koreans until they return to international negotiations on nuclear disarmament, has the administration maneuvered its way into a diplomatic bind?

So it would seem.

"Clearly there is a little bit of tension in their current situation," said Bruce Bennett, a North Korea expert at the RAND Corp. think tank. He thinks the U.S. may have been outmaneuvered at this stage of a seesawing struggle that dates to 1992, when North and South Korea pledged to rid their peninsula of nuclear arms.

Since April, when North Korea abandoned the international negotiations known as the "six-party talks" with the U.S., South Korea, Japan, China and Russia, it has vowed to restart its nuclear weapons production, conducted an underground atomic test and promised to "wipe out the aggressors on the globe once and for all" if the United States resorts to military action.

Just this week, the North said it was ready to talk — but only with the Americans. The State Department quickly responded by saying it would talk, but only as part of the six-party format.

The picture began to shift early this month when former President Bill Clinton visited Pyongyang and met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, who agreed to free two U.S. journalists detained in the North.

The question now is how President Barack Obama will slip out of the predicament to regain the upper hand and take advantage of North Korea's new interest in talks.

One possibility, in Bennett's view, would be a U.S. decision to send its special envoy on North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, to Pyongyang for one-on-one talks as part of a broader consultation that would include separate visits to Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo and Moscow — the other players in the six-party approach.

That would get around the North Koreans' refusal to participate directly in the six-party talks. But it's not clear whether the U.S. partners — especially South Korea and Japan — would go along. The partners thus far have publicly expressed no willingness to let the U.S. bypass the six-party talks.

At stake is Obama's standing on the world stage, important at a time when he is juggling other high-priority national security problems like wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, trouble in Pakistan and the prospect of a showdown with Iran over its own alleged ambition to build a nuclear weapon.

An even more primary worry is the potential for a nuclear arms race in Asia. Many worry that if the North Koreans cannot be persuaded to irreversibly eliminate its nuclear program, Japan and perhaps South Korea might feel compelled to use their technical abilities to develop nuclear programs as a counterweight to the North.

That is one of the key reasons the Obama administration believes it cannot accept North Korea's offer to hold talks that do not include South Korea and Japan as well as former close North Korean allies China and Russia. That six-party format was started in 2003 to broaden the pressure against the North.

"We do not want to be disconnected from our regional partners," State Department spokesman Ian C. Kelly said Wednesday. "So when we have talks with the North Koreans on these kinds of security issues, we want to have these talks together with our partners. We don't want to disenfranchise them."

The North Koreans — believed to have a small number of nuclear devices and an ambition to develop missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead as far as the continental United States — want a direct dialogue with Washington because the United States is the chief defender of its rival, South Korea.

North Korea has also put Obama to the test of his own promise to stop rewarding provocations. In June, shortly after North Korea defied United Nations sanctions and conducted an underground nuclear test, Obama said explicitly that his administration would not repeat what he considered to be the mistakes of the Bush administration — paying attention to North Korea in asking them to step back from the nuclear brink.

Yet Clinton's visit has appeared to have spurred a spate of North Korean moves to cooperate, not only with the U.S. but with its longtime southern rival.

The North has now agreed to rare talks with the South to arrange reunions of families separated since the Korean War ended in 1953. And a meeting between Kim and the chief of Hyundai, the South Korean conglomerate, led to the release of a South Korean detainee.

The North also has agreed to lift restrictions on border crossings with the South and pledged to resume suspended inter-Korean projects in tourism and industry. Last week a North Korean delegation traveled to Seoul to mourn the death of former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, who favored a more open policy toward the North.

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EDITOR'S NOTE — Robert Burns has covered national security and military affairs for The Associated Press since 1990.