Expecting More of the Same
The Six-Party Talks on North Korea's nuclear program resumed today in Beijing for the first time in 13 months. But, judging from the first day of the renewed talks, it was like the negotiations never ended. True to form, Pyongyang used the resumption of talks to issue a familiar list of demands and threats. According to the Associated Press, North Korea made the following demands, as "preconditions" for ending its nuclear program.
- The lifting of all U.N. sanctions
- An end to U.S. financial restrictions
- Delivery/construction of a nuclear reactor to allow the DPRK to generate more electricity
- Energy aid until the reactor is built
If those demands are not met, Pyongyang vowed to increase its nuclear deterrent. DPRK representatives also reminded other participants (representing the United States, South Korea, Japan, Russia and China) that it "is" a nuclear power, a not-too-subtle reference to its recent (if largely unsuccessful) test of a nuclear device.
So far, the other delegations seem unimpressed with North Korea's rhetoric and appear to be standing firm against Pyongyang. Japan's led negotiator said North Korea's position is "unacceptable," and a Chinese spokesman said it was time for "action for action," indicating that even Beijing is growing tired of the North Korean game. But another Chinese official emphasized the need for "patience," suggesting that the DPRK's most important ally is prepared to give Pyongyang--and the diplomatic process--more time. It's an angle that Kim Jong-il has exploited before, and he almost certainly try that tactic this time around, too.
As for the U.S., Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, who is leading the American delegation, said that existing sanctions against Pyongyang will remain in place until the North disarms. He also voiced hope that the Six Party group can soon begin implementing a "de-nuclearization" agreement that was reached in September 2005. Under that agreement--the only one reached in the Six Party process--the North agreed to abandon its nuclear program in exchange for security guarantees.
Mr. Hill also suggested a slightly different tack in the new round of negotiations, saying that "The supply of our patience may have exceeded the international demand for that patience, and we should be a little less patient and pick up the pace and work faster."
Dick Morris--among others--has advocated some sort of agreement with North Korea as a means for President Bush to "get his presidency off the mat." But obviously, the last thing we need is another diplomatic disaster along the lines of the 1994 Agreed To Framework, which gave Pyongyang virtually everything it wanted, in exchange for a shell game at the Yongbyon Nuclear Facility. While IAEA inspectors and cameras monitored an apparent lull in activity at that site, North Korea simply took its program underground, completing technical work for the device detonated earlier this year.
While the Six Party process has been both maddening and slow, the Bush Administration deserves credit for sticking with it, and keeping our regional partners involved. Keeping multi-lateral pressure on Pyongyang is probably the best hope of reaching some sort of accord that is enforceable and verifiable, even if it takes years to complete the process. As the latest round of talks continue, we can expect more of the same: Korea will continue to bluster, stall, and pull various military and diplomatic stunts. But at some point, Pyongyang will be faced with a hard choice: will it sign on to an agreement that gives it some hope of staying afloat (in some form or fashion), or will it abandon the process and risk everything on a political-military roll of the dice, a move that would almost certainly guarantee its destruction.
Normally, the choice would be obvious for any nation-state facing potential oblivion, but with Kim Jong-il calling the shots, you never know. That's why the Bush Administration needs to keep all options on the table--including military power--if Pyongyang won't do the rational thing. At this point, there is reason to believe that North Korea can be eventually prodded into a workable agreement, but there's also the risk that DPRK will jump off the deep end, too. We need to be prepared for that eventuality--and communicate that to North Korea in no uncertain terms.