IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Hope, distrust for North Korea talks

Getting North Korea and the United States to sit down at the negotiating table this week represents monumental effort, given how polarized the two sides have become in a year-long standoff. By Kari Huus.
/ Source:

Getting North Korea and the United States to sit down at the negotiating table this week represents monumental effort, given how polarized the two sides have become in a year-long standoff. Even modest progress — the agreement to talk again, for instance — on how to halt North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons will be a relief. But even modest progress is a lot to hope for.

The promising development is the format of the talks. The United States has always insisted on multilateral talks while Pyongyang has pushed for bilateral talks with the United States, arguing that its quarrel is strictly with Washington. North Korea’s willingness to include China, South Korea, Japan and Russia in this forum is evidence of some flexibility on its part, and Washington hopes it will relay solidarity among countries that want North Korea to back down from its nuclear program.

But this encouraging sign remains obscured by distrust and uncertainties on both sides for the three-day talks in Beijing.

“With the North Koreans sounding increasingly as if they are determined to acquire and retain nuclear weapons, and the deeply divided Bush administration ambivalent at best about reaching an agreement with a regime it considers untrustworthy and repugnant, there is little basis for optimism about the next round of Beijing talks,” says Robert Einhorn, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

It was long believed that the secretive regime in Pyongyang was largely bluffing about its nuclear capabilities. But the last year has turned this assumption on its head. Tensions began escalating with news that North Korea was pursuing uranium enrichment, something a high-level official North Korean reportedly admitted when an American official confronted him with U.S. evidence.

The rift between the Bush administration and the regime of Kim Jong Il quickly deepened. The U.S. forced the suspension of badly needed fuel-oil supplies provided to North Korea through a 1994 agreement. Pyongyang in turn expelled U.N. nuclear inspectors, declared that it had withdrawn from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and moved to restart its Yongbyon reactor, which had been mothballed. More recently, Pyongyang said it had reprocessed 8,000 spent fuel rods, presumably for use in nuclear weapons.

White House divide
Throughout, the Bush administration has been adamant that it would not fall prey to “nuclear blackmail.” It refused bilateral talks, and raised the stakes, repositioning war ships on Guam. More recently, the United States has pulled together a group of nations willing to intercept North Korean ships in an effort to cut off illegal revenue to Kim’s regime, such as illicit drug trafficking or sales of weapons of mass destruction.

As the talks get underway, there is less certainty than ever that North Korea is bluffing. In recent months, it has referred to its “nuclear deterrent force,” arguing that it is essential to deflect a U.S. threat. While claims that 8,000 fuel rods have been reprocessed are believed to be an exaggeration, along with some of the regime’s other claims, there are gaping holes in what it known about North Korea’s actual capabilities. It has stopped short, so far, of formally declaring itself a nuclear state.

Perhaps if Pyongyang’s capabilities were known, the Bush administration could arrive at a definitive policy to address the problem, but by most accounts, it remains deeply divided. “It’s not clear that there will be an agreed-upon U.S.-Japan-South Korea position,” says Jonathan Pollack, a specialist in East Asian political-military affairs at the U.S. Naval War College. “It’s also not clear if there is even a U.S. agreed-upon position.”

In one camp of the Bush administration are those who argue that talks are essential, and that some inducements or reassurances are necessary, however unpalatable, to convince North Korea not to build nuclear weapons, and not to export nuclear technology. Secretary of State Colin Powell continues to signal some flexibility to the North Koreans.

In the other camp are policy advisers such as National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz who are deeply skeptical about talking with the north. The hard-line mantra is that North Korea must “completely and verifiably dismantle its nuclear program” before further discussion or reward. They argue that the problem was caused by North Korea breaking the 1994 Agreed Framework under which it froze nuclear programs and allowed inspections, so the United States should not make concessions. In April, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had circulated a memorandum proposing that the United States ally with China to isolate and bring about a collapse of the North Korean regime.

More ominously, there are analysts — still in the minority — that advocate attacking North Korea.

In a commentary printed in the Wall Street Journal Aug. 7, former CIA director James Woolsey and Thomas McInerney, a retired three-star Air Force lieutenant general and former assistant vice chief of staff, argued that the United States and South Korea should be prepared to use “massive air power” to destroy Yongbyon and to protect South Korea from North Korean retribution.

No non-aggression deal
North Korea’s persistent demand for a non-aggression pledge from Washington as a precondition for a deal on dismantling its nukes will go unanswered for now, despite earlier hints by Powell that Washington might be able to craft a statement or congressional resolution — even if heavily qualified — to reassure the North Koreans.

“We’re not looking at a non-aggression pact,” said a State Department official speaking on background several days before the talks. He also said the United States did not plan to bring a “package of rewards” to win North Korean compliance.

Stating the painfully obvious, a Chinese foreign ministry official said in the run-up to the talks that the positions of the two sides remained “far apart.”

Moreover, these talks are taking place at a modest level — U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelley will lead the American delegation, and meet with officials of like status. These officials are unlikely to have the authority to do much horse-trading.

“The best-case scenario is that both sides demonstrate some flexibility and come out with the sense that there is something to work with,” says Eric Heginbotham, senior fellow and Korea expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “That North Korea doesn’t shut us down on nuclear inspections and the idea of dismantlement, and that North Korea has reason to believe that the United States might agree to some sort of security guarantee and remove obstacles to others giving aid.”

Worst-case scenarios include an acknowledged, nuclear-armed North Korea that is selling nuclear technology to all comers.

“The problem is that the United States has set the bar so high. ... It’s hard to imagine what kind of deal can be struck,” says Clark Sorenson, a professor of Korean studies at the University of Washington.

“I have a feeling that Wolfowitz et al. are sitting back waiting for the talks to fail, so they can advocate more strong-arm tactics,” Sorenson adds. “I think they’re focused on more of a containment strategy, going on the assumption that North Korea will be nuclear-armed.”

Will allies align?
This is just what other parties to the talks do not want to happen, because it could lead to a U.S.-North Korea confrontation in their back yard. But it is not clear how their presence at the table will alter the standoff.

The State Department official said there were “efforts” to coordinate positions with Japan and South Korea, but indicated that nations would speak for themselves in the three-day talks. These two countries are clearly weighing their own sensibilities against the U.S. approach, and their deeply entrenched security arrangements with the U.S. military, which maintains 80,000 troops in South Korea and Japan.

South Korea’s president has embraced a conciliatory approach to the north, a policy that has bedeviled Seoul’s relationship with the Bush administration, which wants South Korea to withhold aid and other perks as a way of forcing Pyongyang to back down.

In the past year, Japan has taken a tougher stand on North Korea, following the U.S. lead. But ahead of talks, Tokyo reportedly was mulling some powerful incentives to Pyongyang. The Asahi Evening News of Japan reported in mid-August that Tokyo wanted to resume fuel oil supplies, cut off under pressure from the United States after the revelation of Pyongyang’s uranium enrichment program, in exchange for nuclear disarmament. The paper reported that Powell shot down the notion of economic assistance in any proposals to Pyongyang.

The U.S. “objects to anything being actually given until North Korea has taken tangible steps to dismantle its program,” says Heginbotham of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Political wild card
Another wild card remains: U.S. politics in the runup to elections. How much does President Bush want to get involved in another crisis, given the volatile security situation in Iraq, and U.S. military forces stretched from Baghdad to Kabul?

With other battles ongoing, the administration may be eager to defuse this crisis and keep it away from campaign issues.

“The die is cast,” says Pollack, of the Naval War College. “We are going to be preoccupied for as far as the eye can see with Iraq. … I do not see the administration at this point intent on creating another crisis.”

He believes that this pressure, and a desire to keep Korea off the campaign agenda will prompt all parties to “hold their noses” and move toward a deal.

Whether the crisis is solvable through negotiations is unknown. Skeptics say it may be too late for negotiations to turn back Pyongyang from its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

“It is something that may blow up in the Bush administration’s face — the fact that North Korea’s nuclear program has grown untethered, and grown beyond what anyone expected,” says Sorenson. “Time is not on our side.”

NBC’s Tammy Kupperman contributed to this report.