Is U.S. President George W. Bush at last ready
to deal with the third charter member of his "Axis of Evil," thus
giving up his dreams of "regime change" in North Korea?
And is North Korean leader Kim Jong-il really prepared to dismantle his nuclear
weapons program, and even give up as many as eight bombs that U.S. intelligence
agencies believe he may already have produced, in exchange for assurances that
Washington will not try to oust him from power?
Those are the two big questions that remain to be answered on the eve of next
week's eagerly awaited resumption – after more than a year's hiatus – of the
"Six-Party Talks" in Beijing, which, apart from the two protagonists,
also include South Korea, Japan, Russia and host China.
"At this point, both sides are willing to explore the possibility of such
a deal," according to Karin Lee, a Korea expert at the Friends Committee
on National Legislation (FCNL), a lobby group here, "but each side will
be watching very carefully what the other says and does. It's a very delicate
point that we've reached."
That the talks will indeed reconvene comes as an immense relief to both Seoul
and Beijing, which have been deeply alarmed over the past few months by the
saber-rattling in which both Washington and Pyongyang have engaged.
When, after North Korea declared itself a nuclear power in February, U.S. intelligence
allegedly found evidence of an impending nuclear test, the Pentagon – along
with Vice Pres. Dick Cheney's office, a hotbed of Korea hawks – dispatched
15 F-117 stealth warplanes to South Korea.
The move was seen as a deliberate show of force designed as much to impress
the "Nervous Nellies" in Seoul and Beijing, as Kim himself, with Washington's
impatience and determination.
At the same time, however, Washington also made clear that it was prepared
to be more flexible at the negotiating table – specifically with respect to
Pyongyang's long-standing demand for bilateral talks – than in the past.
"We are prepared to meet with them bilaterally in the ...context of the
six-party process," Assistant Secretary of State for Asian Affairs Christopher
Hill told lawmakers in late May in a phrase that Hill himself has made increasingly
clear he will interpret as broadly as he can.
Those remarks were followed by a series of bilateral get-togethers in New York,
an intensification of diplomatic exchanges in Northeast Asia among the most
concerned parties, and new promises of economic and other assistance by South
Korea, conditioned on the resumption of Six-Party talks. After boycotting the
talks for a year, Pyongyang finally agreed earlier this month to return to the
table on Monday.
The issue is now is whether Washington and Pyongyang are sincerely committed
to the talks – and an eventual deal – or whether they are simply going through
the motions hoping that when the talks break down the other party will be blamed.
Some analysts, such as Scott Bruce and Peter Hayes of the California-based
Nautilus Institute, are skeptical. "For North Korea, they get some door
prizes just for showing up and this will give them more time, allowing them
to stall the process until there's a new government in the U.S.," Bruce
And while Hill may have been given greater procedural flexibility, they argue
in a recent article, there has been no indication that Washington will offer
new substantive incentives, notably economic aid (even while letting Seoul and
others do so), in exchange for its giving up its nuclear trump card which, in
the wake of the Iraq war, it sees as its greatest protection against attack.
Its aim, according to Bruce, is to show that Pyongyang will not accept "any
reasonable offer," thus isolating the regime and hastening its collapse.
Other analysts are more optimistic, albeit very cautiously so.
The combination of dire economic straits, increased pressure by China, and
major new incentives by Seoul (the most important of which, including transmission
of desperately needed electrical power, will be delivered only after a deal
is reached), as well as a willingness by Washington to show more respect for
its sovereignty (Bush began referring to Kim him as "Mr. Kim" in June)
appears to have sufficiently altered "the correlation of forces" for
Pyongyang to return to the table, according to Alan Romberg, director of the
East Asia Program at the Henry L. Stimson Center and a former top Asia specialist
at the State Department.
He believes that if Washington is willing to accelerate its provision of security
guarantees, including diplomatic recognition, instead of leaving it until after
denuclearization or condition it on other issues, such as human rights, the
process could well move forward.
Both Romberg and Lee voice considerable confidence in Hill, whose last post
was ambassador to South Korea, as an unusually skilled negotiator who also enjoys
Bush's trust. Indeed, they credit Hill with overcoming the effective veto exercised
by Cheney and other administration hawks over the past several years on any
negotiating format that could be construed as bilateral.
"(Hill) really wants to try in a variety of procedural and substantive
ways to get things going," said Romberg. "He'll work within the official
parameters that he's given, but he's certainly stretched those parameters He
will engage with his North Korean counterparts."
"If the administration grants Hill the flexibility to negotiate – rather
than just talk – then success just might be possible," said Lee, who said
she had been encouraged by the evident cooperation between Washington and Seoul
with respect to unveiling of the latter's new aid package.
That "South Korea now apparently has greater leeway to offer a bigger
package of incentives to the North outside the Six-Party framework," she
said, was a "significant departure" from the past and one that could
Still, most analysts agree that prospects for swift progress, let alone a breakthrough,
are unlikely and that the initial discussions are likely to be exploratory.
"We've lost a lot of ground in the last year," according to Lee,
who noted that the most that could be expected from the round that begins Monday
is "an agreement that would signal real negotiations, such as setting up
rounds of working-group-level talks."
But Romberg said he believes that to satisfy the administration hawks, Hill
may have to bring home something substantive as well, specifically some formal
– although not necessarily explicit – statement by Pyongyang that
it is committed to including a suspected highly-enriched uranium (HEU) program,
as well as its plutonium program, in any eventual denuclearization accord.
North Korea has repeatedly denied that it has a HEU program, and China and
South Korea have both raised doubts about its existence. But even critics of
the administration's policy here, upon reviewing the evidence, believe that
Pyongyang has at least gathered the components and equipment to put one together.
(Inter Press Service)