War Stories

The Way From Santa Fe

North Korea is backing down. Can Bush?

Could it be that the Bush administration has come to its senses on North Korea? Ever since Pyongyang announced that it was resuming its nuclear weapons program, U.S. officials have insisted that even holding negotiations over the issue would amount to “appeasement.” Yet such negotiations—or, as they prefer to say, “talks”—are now getting under way. James A. Kelly, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, is in Seoul today to lay out a framework with South Korean officials. “Once we get beyond nuclear weapons,” Kelly said at a news conference, “there may be opportunities with the U.S., with private investors, with other countries, to help North Korea in the energy area.”

This is precisely the quid pro quo (“we’ll reconsider our nuclear program, you give us lightwater reactors for energy”) that North Korea has been demanding and that President Bush has, until now, been rejecting out of hand. Also today, Bill Richardson, the New Mexico governor who conducted informal discussions with North Korean diplomats last week, said low-level talks between U.S. and North Korean officials at the United Nations would probably begin soon.

The fact that the North Koreans sought out Richardson as an intermediary should have clarified, beyond any doubt, that they’d been waving their uranium fuel-rods as a bargaining chip and were now eagerly seeking a deal. Few news stories have noted it and fewer still have diagnosed its implications, but Richardson is an old hand at dealing with the North Koreans and a fairly successful one at that.

As a U.S. congressman in the 1990s, Richardson went to Pyongyang three times. In 1994, after a U.S. Army helicopter was shot down after accidentally crossing the DMZ, he negotiated the release of the pilot’s remains. (The pilot was one of his constituents.) In 1996, partly on the basis of this contact, Richardson was called on to play an active role in hammering out a proposal for “Four-Party Talks,” in which the two Koreas, China, and the United States might at last settle the remaining issues of the 1950-53 war. (The talks broke down when a North Korean submarine ran aground in South Korean waters.) Finally, that same year, Richardson negotiated the release of Evan Hunziker, an American peace activist who was arrested as a spy after trying to swim across the Yalu River. Richardson also used the occasion to inform the North Koreans of President Clinton’s interest in arranging formal bilateral meetings.

The point is, the North Koreans knew Richardson. They had dealt with him, in “productive” settings, as a White House intermediary. And so they thought—at a moment when they desperately needed contact, and this White House was barring it—Richardson might be a resourceful link. They may also have thought that this was the way Washington liked to deal with them generally. After all, in 1993, during the last crisis over North Korean nuclear weapons (a crisis remarkably similar to this one), it was former president Jimmy Carter who came to Pyongyang to work out a deal with Kim Il Sung personally. Carter’s visit ultimately led to the Agreed Framework signed with Clinton. Though Carter made that trip on his own initiative, it’s a safe bet that North Korean diplomats figured he was acting, sub rosa, at Clinton’s behest. (Most Americans considered it amazing that an ex-president would go off and make such a deal on his own; officials of a totalitarian country like North Korea are probably incapable of even imagining such a thing.) Seen in this light, the North Koreans may have gone to New Mexico a) simply to seek a sympathetic American ear but also b) to give Bush a face-saving way to start negotiations over this crisis, just as they thought Carter’s trip gave Clinton a face-saving way to start negotiations last time.

Another indication of North Korea’s desire to bargain, rather than actually go ahead and build nukes, is its official statement over the weekend denying that it had ever admitted restarting its nuclear program. The accusation that it had done so, the statement said, was “an invention fabricated by the U.S. with sinister intentions.” This is sheer nonsense, of course. James Kelly went to Pyongyang last October precisely to confront officials with intelligence evidence that they were starting up their reactors, contrary to the accord with Clinton. The officials, so it was widely reported, confessed that indeed they had done so. If these reports were incorrect, they would have been denied long ago. However, this new denial can be read as a statement of readiness, on the North Koreans’ part, to turn back the clock, to negate the act—in short, to negotiate a way out of this mess.

When this crisis began to heat up, just before the New Year, Bush officials refused to negotiate because, as they put it, they did not want to “reward” a country for “bad behavior.” Now, it seems, they are beginning to realize that North Korea’s jam is our jam, too; that we have at least as much interest in getting out of it as they do. From what the North Koreans have been saying, it won’t take much on our part to get us both out: a non-aggression pact and some energy aid—in short, the restoration of the ‘94 Clinton accord. Maybe, just maybe, Bush will overcome his allergy to anything touched by Clinton and give this deal a try.