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July 23, 2005

Much at Stake on Eve of Six-Party Talks

by Jim Lobe

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 told IPS.

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 prove promising.

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)

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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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