N. Korea, U.S. waiting for each other to budge in nuclear-arms talks

Six-nation negotiations set to resume this week

July 25, 2005|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - The United States and North Korea will resume meeting this week during a new round of six-nation talks over Pyongyang's nuclear program, and each side appears anxious to see whether the other is prepared to drop its confrontational stance and make a deal.

It is clear that the six-way talks beginning tomorrow are mostly about the two leading antagonists: a prickly, difficult-to-read and probably nuclear-armed regime on one side and an American administration with an icy disposition on the other. It is a tense dynamic that most analysts say does not bode well for a breakthrough this week.

The crucial question is which side - if any - will make the first bold step toward defusing a 33-month standoff, during which North Korea has dropped out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and, the Bush administration fears, may have developed a small arsenal of nuclear bombs that it could conceivably sell to the highest bidder or use to threaten the region.

North Korea hopes that the Bush administration wants a deal badly enough that it will give in to Pyongyang's demands, including a peace treaty officially ending the Korean War and normal diplomatic relations, long-standing proposals that the regime revived just days before this week's talks. The Bush administration hopes that North Korea's desperate need for aid will force it to pledge to abandon its nuclear program.

Focus on Washington

After more than two years of watching Pyongyang escalate its nuclear activity, some experts in both China and the United States say that it is unrealistic to expect North Korea to cede any ground unless the United States makes a drastic change in posture.

"The most important thing for the North Koreans on the nuclear issue is whether or not the U.S. has changed its policy, its hostile policy," said Ren Xiao, who just concluded a five-day visit to North Korea as part of a delegation from the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, a foreign policy think tank. "They have to be convinced that the U.S. now has a new policy, [a] willingness to co-exist with [North Korea] peacefully, and they have not seen this kind of policy change."

Pyongyang's focus on Washington is at odds with the Bush administration's strategy of using the leverage of North Korea's neighbors - China, South Korea, Japan and Russia, who are the other parties at the talks - to reach a comprehensive pact.

That approach may allow the United States to pursue an agreement in which Washington gives up nothing directly but allows North Korea's neighbors to provide the expensive sweeteners. South Korea has recently proposed a generous aid package that would include building a sizable electrical grid for North Korea, which perennially contends with energy shortages and blackouts.

Such incentives are expected to play a central role in any deal, and China's influence as North Korea's historic ally and prime donor of fuel oil has helped push North Korea to participate in multilateral talks.

But North Korea continues trying to make the nuclear standoff a matter of one-on-one diplomacy with the United States, the enemy of North Korean propaganda. The other parties, too, see the U.S.-North Korea relationship as the key to a deal.

With its call last week for normalized relations with the United States and a Korean War peace treaty to replace the 1953 armistice, Pyongyang has again tried to put direct pressure on the Bush administration to act going into the talks.

The United States has been willing to engage North Korea directly in one forum outside the six-party talks: the United Nations in New York. Those off-stage discussions between envoys have been helpful, analysts said, in smoothing the way to more formal talks.

Weapons and intentions

North Korea has on more than one occasion used the six-party talks to issue provocative hints about its nuclear capabilities and intentions, including, U.S. officials said, a direct warning that it was prepared to test a nuclear weapon. On Feb. 10, North Korea publicly declared that it has nuclear weapons and would not participate in the six-party talks until the United States softened its stance.

But Pyongyang has not tested a bomb, a move that could lead to sanctions and further isolate a regime that is dependent on its neighbors for food and fuel. By maintaining the mystery around its nuclear program, while boasting of its offensive capabilities, analysts say, North Korea is seeking to maximize its leverage.

"The bottom line is that North Korea has only one card to play. That is nuclear weapons," said Jing Huang, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, in remarks to reporters in Beijing last week. "And the only way to play that card is one foot in, one foot out. The most powerful weapon North Korea has is, `I have it, I don't have it.'"

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