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Pangs of déjà vu in N. Korean diplomacy

If North Korea’s statements undermining a hard-fought accord reached at nuclear talks in Beijing have a familiar ring, that’s because it has all happened before.
/ Source: Reuters

If North Korea’s statements undermining a hard-fought accord reached at nuclear talks in Beijing have a familiar ring, that’s because it has all happened before.

In August 2003, negotiators from the United States, North and South Korea, Japan, Russia and host China had wrapped up talks on a Friday with the modest agreement that they would meet again.

The clinking of champagne glasses had barely faded when Pyongyang’s delegate made a sudden announcement that threw the meager gains out the window and the entire talks into question.

“There’s no need to hold this kind of talks,” the grim-looking delegate said at the time. “We’re no longer interested. Our expectations have diminished.”

He went on to accuse the United States of having no intention of changing policy and trying to trick the North into disarming.

But they were back at the table when the second round of talks convened in February 2004.

Analysts say the North was simply posturing to strengthen its position before the next round, part of the maneuvering that has become a hallmark of its negotiating strategy over the years.

Fast forward to this Tuesday, when — again one day after securing a landmark agreement on disarmament — the North suddenly announced it would not give up its nuclear weapons until the United States provides civilian atomic reactors.

Pyongyang zeroed in on the two issues left unresolved by the talks — its own demand for a light-water nuclear reactor, and whether it would receive energy aid before or after it disarmed. Washington wants dismantling of all its nuclear programs first.

The U.S. State Department said Pyongyang’s demand was not in line with the deal it signed, and Tokyo called it unacceptable.

But in the world of North Korean diplomacy, where Pyongyang has developed a predictable pattern of unpredictable behavior, it was just a case of déjà vu. The true test will be whether the North is at the table when talks resume in November.