[OUTLOOK]6-party talks are looking useless

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[OUTLOOK]6-party talks are looking useless

Frantic efforts are under way to lure Pyeongyang back to the six-party talks. This is understandable, but in my judgment it is misguided and premature. If past experience is any guide, one of the North Korea’s neighbors will pay it handsomely for merely showing up, and the North will secure a new opportunity to expose and exploit the visible policy differences among its interlocutors.
An early meeting of the six should not be the priority; agreement on strategy among “the Five” is a necessary prerequisite for a successful negotiation with the North. That should be the focus of diplomacy now.
The six-party talks were established to serve several key objectives. One was to muster expanded leverage on Pyeongyang by confronting it with a unified approach among its neighbors and the United States. Another was to provide multilateral “political cover” for bilateral discussions between U.S. and North Korean representatives ― an essential component of a serious negotiation. A third was to assure that South Korea, China, Japan, and Russia acknowledged their stake in assuring the North’s compliance with the terms of an agreement should one emerge.
Unfortunately, little has been achieved. “The Five” have been unable to present a common front in the talks, and Pyeongyang has exploited their disarray to buy time and avoid hard choices. Despite a few cursory exchanges on the margins of the Beijing meetings, no serious bilateral discussions between the United States and North Korea have materialized. Plenary meetings have been marked by formal presentations and little give and take.
Meanwhile, though the negotiations are well into their second year, the North is busy operating its nuclear reactor, reprocessing its plutonium, and working energetically to develop a uranium enrichment capability ― scarcely a record of accomplishment that inspires confidence, especially in light of North Korea’s provocative announcement on Feb. 10 that it has a nuclear deterrent, intends to expand it further and will return to the talks only when its conditions are met.
Why should we expect Pyeongyang to take the negotiations seriously? At the last six-party meeting in June last year, the Bush administration, responding to admonitions from Seoul and Beijing and its own need to adopt a more politically defensible diplomatic stance during its bid for re-election, put a more conciliatory offer on the table. It may not have been the most imaginative proposal since the appearance of sliced bread, but it constituted genuine movement in Washington’s position.
Pyeongyang appeared initially to perceive some features of interest, which it promised to study. A month passed without a word of public support for the U.S. initiative from South Korea, China, or Japan. Perversely, Moscow openly expressed its preference for Pyeongyang’s offer of a partial “freeze.” The North, evidently confident that it would pay no price for stubbornness, then trashed the U.S. offer and refused to return to the talks. As one might have predicted, pressure on Washington to come up with a new and more flexible offer resumed. Pyeongyang wriggled off the hook, while its neighbors and the U.S. went back to negotiating among themselves. This is a fool’s game!
Without a coordinated negotiating strategy, further six-party meetings are feckless. They merely provide an excuse to concentrate on a process that is yet without substance.
The core problem in the negotiation is easy to identify. Whatever the venue, Pyeongyang has little incentive to take the interests of its neighbors and the U.S. seriously unless we present them with a hard and inescapable choice: Verifiably shut down its nuclear activities in return for clearly specified benefits, or confront serious, tangible consequences for its refusal to do so. The Five cannot present such a choice unless they are united and are prepared to utilize both carrots and sticks.
Seoul and Beijing appear interested in offering only carrots. There is nothing diplomatically repugnant about appeasement, provided it works. It is scarcely a prudent or defensible course if it does not. And there is little evidence of results to date. South Korea and China have extended substantial resource transfers to the North. Both maintain publicly that they will not tolerate a nuclear North Korea. Yet in the face of the North’s Feb. 10 announcement, both ― to the relief of Pyeongyang, I suspect ― displayed embarrassment and denial rather than purposeful resolution.
Washington’s approach seems comparably problematic, not least, perhaps, because visible internal differences over policy within the administration have not been decisively resolved. To date it has been equally short on credible threats and plausible inducements. Japan has put together a balanced mix of carrots and sticks, but is utterly preoccupied, however understandably, with the unresolved abduction issue.
Unless the Bush administration and Japan can find some common ground with South Korea and China that marries appealing inducements with convincing threats, further six-party talks will be an exercise in futility.
The time has come to get serious, and that means authoritative consultations among the Five. If a consensus on negotiating strategy can be forged ― and this will demand greater flexibility from Washington and greater firmness from Seoul and Beijing ― a resumption of the talks would be timely. If it can’t, we will have to go back to the drawing board because the talks won’t help.

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

by Michael H. Armacost
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