[VIEWPOINT]New twist to talks with North

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[VIEWPOINT]New twist to talks with North

The North Korean nuclear crisis has entered another new and interesting phase. A number of developments in recent months enhance the possibility of a serious negotiation.
One is the establishment of multilateral talks in which all parties with an immediate and direct interest in the outcome are represented. North Korea now faces five powers in the negotiations, and all express determination to roll back Pyeongyang’s nuclear activities. And the six-party venue constitutes in embryonic form a potentially valuable new sub-regional security institution.
The Chinese have become the key broker of a possible settlement. What prompted Beijing to assume a more active role is not entirely clear; presumably some combination of heightened anxiety about the strategic consequences of Pyeongyang’s nuclear program, and concern that in the absence of a diplomatic resolution, the U.S. might contemplate forceful pre-emptive measures. In any event, the Chinese have convened six-power talks, conveyed their “red lines” to the North Koreans with greater clarity, signaled the seriousness of their diplomatic effort by temporarily suspending oil deliveries and deploying People’s Liberation Army troops to the border area, and stepped up high-level consultations with all interested parties.
More rigorous international efforts to staunch North Korean trade in illicit drugs and counterfeit money are squeezing the hard currency earnings that help Kim Jong-il subsidize the key constituencies of his regime ― the military leadership, upper echelons of the bureaucracy, and key cadres of the Korean Workers’ Party. So is the slowing trickle of remittances from Pyeongyang’s sympathizers in Japan. Meanwhile, the Proliferation Security Initiative is emerging as a new impediment to North Korean overseas sales of nuclear-related items.
Differences between Seoul and Washington have eased as South Korea has offered to send additional personnel to aid security and reconstruction efforts in Iraq, and the Bush Administration has renewed public expressions of its readiness to include security assurances for North Korea in a negotiated settlement of the crisis. Meanwhile, Washington and Seoul are working out plans for adjusting the future size and location of the U.S. military presence in South Korea through bilateral talks rather than competing press releases.
The idea of multilateral security assurances is a step forward. Pyeongyang’s demand for a bilateral U.S.-North Korean nonaggression pact was always a nonstarter in Washington. It would inevitably raise questions about the value of our alliances with South Korea and Japan, and provide an opening for new demands from Pyeongyang to remove U.S. troops from the peninsula. Multilateral security assurances, on the other hand, recognize the historical fact that Korea’s security problems have generally emanated from its Great Power neighbors, can be extended to both Koreas, and increase the stake of North Korea’s neighbors in assuring North Korea’s compliance with any new nuclear agreement.
This is the good news. Unfortunately, other factors complicate the negotiating prospects. Above all, it is not clear whether time is an ally. Two clocks are running. On the one hand, the North’s economic vulnerability is growing as winter nears. This increases the pressure on Kim Jong-il seriously to weigh the trade-offs for its nuclear program. On the other hand, the North may choose (as it has indeed claimed) to use this time to accumulate more weapons-grade material with which to develop or expand a nuclear arsenal. And as its financial and political investment in this capability grows, so may its reluctance to relinquish it.
Political developments in the U.S. and Korea further muddy the waters. The Bush Administration has a pretty full plate with rising casualties in Iraq, trouble in the border regions of Afghanistan, and an increasingly bloody stalemate between the Israelis and Palestinians. Pyeongyang’s incentives to play a waiting game may thus be buoyed by expectations that deteriorating security conditions elsewhere may weaken Washington’s diplomatic hand on the Korean Peninsula. Moreover, the U.S. presidential campaign is essentially under way, adding another distraction, as does President Roh Moo-hyun’s proposal for a referendum in South Korea.
And, of course, there are substantive matters of daunting complexity. Washington’s distrust of Pyeongyang is pervasive, (as is Pyeongyang’s of Washington). It is difficult to imagine the Bush administration signing any agreement with North Korea that does not include the kind of intrusive inspection that has heretofore been anathema to Pyeongyang. In fact, given Pyeongyang’s record of secrecy and its capacity for deception, it is difficult to conceptualize the type of verification regime that would inspire American confidence that North Korea has dismantled its uranium enrichment program and placed all other weapons-grade plutonium under rigorous IAEA inspection.
That is no excuse not to explore all possibilities. But it is good reason not to break out any champagne.

* The writer, a former U.S. ambassador to Japan, is a professor at Stanford University.

by Michael Armacost
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