WASHINGTON - Here we go again. Pyongyang provokes a crisis, the world responds
in varying degrees of rage, and North Korean officials talk about talks.
Only this time North Korea is looking for talks one-on-one with the United
States, as it's always wanted. No way, say the North Koreans, will they return
to six-party talks, an elaborate charade that finally went nowhere.
The reasons the North Koreans want bilateral dialogue are obvious. They can
isolate South Korea, treating the South as a posturing satellite of the United
States. They can call for a "peace treaty" formally ending the Korean War in
place of the armistice, signed 56 years ago on July 27, 1953, that the North
has said is no longer valid.
As a prerequisite for a peace treaty, they can demand, as always, that the US
withdraw its dwindling forces from South Korea, break
off its alliance with the South and stop modernizing South Korea's armed forces
with the latest weapons systems.
Above all, North Korea can turn the talks into a forum for yakking about
"reciprocity" on abandoning nuclear weapons. That is, if North Korea is to give
up its nuclear weapons program, which it resumed this year after refusing to
agree to any system for verifying disablement of its nuclear facilities, North
Korea can demand the US get rid of all nukes on warships and planes in the
North Korea is not going to accomplish these aims very quickly, but the
question is whether the US will eventually relent and agree to talks between an
American and a North Korean diplomat with no one else invited.
For now Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is saying no. Her strategy, after
talks with diplomats from other Asian countries, is to isolate North Korea, to
call it a pariah with no sympathy and no prospects.
North Korea is "very isolated now" and has "no friends left", she has been
saying, repeating a refrain in which the nasty North appears as the odd man
out, skulking in the shadows. The US is putting teeth into these words by
impressing on one and all the need to abide by the UN Security Council
resolution, adopted after the North's second underground nuclear test on May
25, that bans trade with North Korea in just about everything that counts.
All that may be fine as a negotiating ploy, but North Korea now is coming out
in the open with a strategy that may not be as misguided or unrealistic as it
appears. No sooner did Clinton get back from the Association of Southeast Asian
Nations regional forum in Phuket, Thailand, than North Korea's UN ambassador,
Sin Son Ho, told journalists "We are not against dialogue ... not against any
negotiations on issues of common concern".
For now, US officials are saying the talks have to begin in the six-party
format at which North Korea signed on to a vague deal in September 2005 to get
rid of its nuclear program in return for a huge infusion of aid. In the
six-party setting, hosted by China and including the US, Japan and Russia as
well as the two Koreas, the North after endless arm-twisting signed on to
agreements in February and October 2007 that seemed as if Pyongyang would shut
down its nuclear complex at Yongbyon and finally dismantle everything to do
with nuclear weapons.
In return, of course, North Korea stood to become the most excessively
foreign-funded country on the planet. What did a few billion really matter, the
diplomats reasoned, if that was the price to pay for keeping the world safe
from North Korea's nukes and missiles?
The whole scheme was fantasy, of course, as became clear when North Korea
absolutely refused to talk about whatever it was doing to develop enriched
uranium. That gambit was entirely separate from the complex at Yongbyon where
it seemed possible to turn a five-megawatt "experimental" reactor off and on
with the flick of a switch and finally extract the plutonium needed for nuclear
Nor was anything said about getting rid of the six to a dozen nuclear devices
the North is generally believed to have in its inventory. No one said a word
about visiting the site of North Korea's first underground nuclear test on
October 9, 2006.
The North bypassed these issues, all with the acquiescence of chief US
negotiator Christopher Hill whose wishful thinking seemed powerful and
pervasive enough to get him actually to believe his own optimistic words.
North Korea's leader Kim Jong-il, or whomever's really in charge while he hangs
on with serious illnesses, has reason to be fairly confident that eventually
the United States will want to talk some more.
The precedents are clear. The US, after appearing "hard line" at critical
points over the past generation of recriminations, has always been under
tremendous pressure to show a willingness to meet the enemy.
One of the easiest barbs tossed at George W Bush during his first term was that
he was thwarting dialogue with North Korea. Bush-baiters pulled that one out of
the drawer whenever North Korea got particularly tough. Kim Dae-jung, the South
Korean president who initiated the Sunshine policy of reconciliation with the
North, got upset when Bush, in their first meeting at the White House in March
2001, was rude enough to express "skepticism" about verifying any deal with Kim
Nobody has evinced the sentiment for one-on-one dialogue more clearly than
President Barack Obama. Remember, when he was running for president, that he
said he would be willing to talk to enemy leaders if that's what it took to
bring about peace and reconciliation?
Obama now is looking to China to come to the rescue. During a visit of two top
Chinese officials, he appealed for "collaboration to achieve the
denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and make it clear to North Korea that
the path to security and respect can be traveled if they meet their
China, however, may be reluctant to do much to annoy its Korean War ally,
especially while the North faces internal problems while Kim Jong-il tries to
arrange his succession. Against that background, how can Clinton, tough though
she may appear now, forever resist the arguments of the North Koreans to
North Korea may have an opening, a means of maneuver, that will make avoidance
of dialogue all the more difficult.
The opening is the fate of two female American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna
Lee, who were found guilty of intruding into North Korea along the Tumen River
border with China and sentenced to 12 years of "hard labor".
They are not undergoing "hard labor" at all, at least not yet. Instead, they
are reportedly still ensconced in the state guesthouse outside Pyongyang where
they've been held for the past four and a half months. Meanwhile, North Korea
reportedly is demanding that the US send a high-level envoy to talk about terms
for their release.
Yonhap, the South Korean news agency, has reported that the US "in principle
reached a compromise with North Korea on the dispatch of a special envoy for
their release". The source as quoted by Yonhap said "70-80% of the negotiations
Might the envoy be Al Gore, the former US vice president whose Current TV
network in San Francisco sent the two on their assignment? Maybe not, but it's
certain North Korea wants someone with name recognition.
Clinton and others in the administration have said the issue of the two women
is entirely separate from that of nuclear talks. It's inconceivable, however,
that North Korea sees them as anything other than pawns in a larger context.
Clinton herself has backed down somewhat from her initial claim that the two
had done nothing to justify their arrest. They have, "apparently", she said,
carefully choosing her words, "admitted that they probably did trespass so they
are deeply regretful and we are very sorry it's happened".
Such an admission seems a small price to pay to winning their freedom, but
that's obviously not all North Korea wants. Negotiations to bring them home may
easily segue into the one-on-one dialogue that North Korea sees as the way to
bypass the South while winning serious concessions from the US.
Journalist Donald Kirk has been covering Korea - and the confrontation of
forces in Northeast Asia - for more than 30 years.