Just hours after declaring its right to launch a long-range missile, North Korea has indicated that it wants direct talks with the U.S. on the missile issue. With preparations for the launch largely complete, Pyongyang appears to be playing one of its main cards, hinting vaguely that the missile launch might be postponed or even scrubbed, if Washington agrees to its demand for one-on-one negotiations.
Pyongyang has long sought bilateral talks with Washington, but the Bush Administration has (correctly) refused, preferring to deal with North Korea through a regional, six-party forum that also includes South Korea, Japan, Russia and China. On Tuesday, the U.S. Ambassador to Japan, Thomas Scheiffer (brother of the CBS anchorman) , called on North Korea to return to the six-nation talks, observing that Pyongyang "doesn't have to undertake bad policies in order to talk to the U.S." North Korea withdrew from the six-party process last November, because of a U.S. crackdown on Pyongyang's illicit financial activity. While the six-party talks have been remarkably unproductive, the U.S. remains committed to the process, because it engages other nations with a stake in the North Korean "outcome," and (in the case of China and Russia), it leverages governments that have some influence with Kim Jong-il.
Speaking of diplomacy, Tuesday's "overture" should not be interpreted as some sort of capitulation or face-saving measure by Kim Jong-il. Long before the TD-2 was mounted on its launch pad, the North Koreans carefully considered all possible scenarios and outcomes. Their latest gambit will allow Pyongyang to "blame' the launch on the United States (if it occurs), claiming that direct talks between the two countries could have prevented it. And, if the U.S. decides to engage the TD-2, Pyongyang will claim a propaganda windfall, asserting that the imperialists interrupted a legitimate space launch and using the incident to further its missile and WMD programs. On the other hand, in a best-case scenario Kim Jong-il gets what he wants (direct talks with the U.S.), at the minor cost of moving one missile to the launch site, and filling it with fuel.
However, the odds of Washington agreeing to bilateral talks (in order to stop the TD-2 launch) are decidedly remote. North Korea's development of WMD and long-range delivery systems is a regional problem--at the very least--and will become a global issue in the very near future. Other nations (specifically China) need to be more actively involved in pressuring Pyongyang to get rid of its nuclear program and long-range missile systems, or face serious consequences. In response to Tuesday's developments, Beijing urged "calm." Not exactly helpful, given the gravity of the current situation.
With the TD-2 sitting on the pad, fueled and apparently ready to go, there will be calls for the U.S. to enter direct talks with North Korea, to "defuse" a tense situation. So far, the Bush Administration is playing its hand correctly. The North Korean crisis is a regional issue that should first be dealt with at that level, with participation by all relevant parties. If Pyongyang elects to go ahead with the missile launch, then the U.S. reserves the right to knock it down, since the apparent flight path would carry it toward our regional allies (i.e., Japan) and American possessions in the Pacific.
The United States appears to be drawing a line in the sand with North Korea over the TD-2 issue. After a decade of appeasement (and more than two years of unproductive, six-party talks), the Bush Administration appears to be calling Pyongyang's bluff, and responding to threats (in this case, an ICBM launch) with an appropriate military response--in this case, engaging the TD-2 with interceptor missiles. It's a sea change in dealing with North Korea, and quite frankly, it's about time.