War Stories

Korea Moves

How did we finally get back to the negotiating table?

Back to the table for seconds
        Click image to expand.
Back to the table for seconds

After a 13-month hiatus, the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear arsenal are set to resume the week after next. Why are they starting up now, as opposed to a year ago? What pushed or lured Washington and Pyongyang—the key but most resistant parties—back to the negotiating table?

The short answer is that they both found a face-saving way out of their deadlock—perhaps because they realized it was about to morph into a suicidal game of highway chicken.

The longer answer tells a more complicated tale of mutual obstinacy, misguided morality, internecine squabbling, well-founded fear, and loopy paranoia—so much so that the short answer’s optimism is beclouded by the mere posing of a further question: Do the revived talks have a ghost of a chance of succeeding? In other words, will they result in North Korea’s nuclear disarmament?

For well over a year now, the North Koreans have been saying they would turn in their nukes if the United States did two things: provide energy assistance and pledge not to attack their territory.

The crucial development is that over the last few weeks the Bush administration—prodded and abetted by South Korea and China—has done just that.

It started on May 13 with a secret meeting in New York between the State Department’s top two officials on Korean affairs and North Korea’s top two diplomats at the United Nations. The North Koreans said they would rejoin the nuclear talks if the Bush administration dropped its “hostile policy” toward their regime. The U.S. officials assured them this could happen.

Soon after, the State Department approved a travel visa for Li Gun, the North Korean Foreign Ministry’s top official on U.S. affairs. (He had been requesting such a visa for many months.) The official reason was to let Li attend a conference. The real reason was to hold a second meeting, just last week, to confirm the deal at a higher level.

After that session, Christopher Hill, the assistant secretary of state for Asian affairs, flew to Beijing to meet with Kim Kye Gwan, North Korea’s deputy foreign affairs minister, and to set the date. Meanwhile, South Korea chimed in with the second of North Korea’s conditions—a promise of vast amounts of electricity. (South Korean companies are also drawing up contracts for huge and potentially lucrative projects to develop the North’s mines and other untapped resources.)

And so the six-party talks were on again—delegates from the United States, China, Russia, Japan, and the two Koreas gathering in Beijing the week of July 25.

Why did it take so long for the Americans and the North Koreans to agree on something that seems so simple?

In the case of the United States, the Bush administration’s top national security officials—Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and President George W. Bush himself—just didn’t want an accord with North Korea, didn’t want even to sit down and talk. Kim Jong-il is an evil dictator; he’d broken an agreement by resuming his nuclear program; merely negotiating with him would be rewarding him for bad behavior; signing a treaty with him would legitimize and perpetuate his reign. Bush’s policy in the first term was to wait for Kim’s regime to collapse and, in the meantime, to take a look at the war plans.

Then three things happened. First, Kim’s regime didn’t collapse. Cheney tried to convince the Chinese to cut off aid, which might have done the trick; but they didn’t want millions of North Korean refugees to pour across their borders. Second, the Joint Chiefs told President Bush that the war plans were too risky; nobody knew where all the targets were, and Kim Jong-il had thousands of artillery rockets a few minutes away from Seoul; if he retaliated, hundreds of thousands of South Koreans could die. Besides, the South Korean government announced that it would not endorse—or allow its territory to be used for—a U.S. airstrike or invasion.

In other words, “regime change” wasn’t happening, and war didn’t look like a real option. Meanwhile, North Korea’s nuclear reactors kept churning out plutonium—and, possibly, A-bombs.

The third thing that happened was the start of Bush’s second term. His first secretary of state, Colin Powell, had favored stepped-up negotiations with North Korea, but he was beaten down—on this and other issues—by Cheney and Rumsfeld. He was also riled by his own undersecretary of state for arms control, John Bolton, who acted as Cheney’s spy at Foggy Bottom and did everything he could to undermine any effort to get serious talks rolling.

Condoleezza Rice, a secretary of state who has Bush’s ear and trust, turns out to be interested in at least engaging in these talks. Chris Hill, her appointee as assistant secretary for Asian matters, is a professional diplomat; working for Richard Holbrooke, he negotiated with Slobodan Milosevic over the Balkans and thus knows that sometimes you have to meet with evil people in the interests of national security. And Bolton, while waiting for his possibly doomed appointment as U.N. ambassador, is out of the loop on arms-control matters.

And so, for the moment, Rice has stopped calling North Korea an “outpost of tyranny” and recently acknowledged its status as “a sovereign state.” A few days ago, President Bush referred to the loathsome dictator as “Mr. Kim Jong-il,” an honorific that North Koreans—rightly or wrongly—took as a sign of respect.

As for the North Koreans, their main obstacle this past year was a long-standing negotiating principle never to make the first move, no matter how small. Kim Il-Sung—Kim Jong-il’s father and predecessor—saw his country as a “shrimp among whales.” The only way to survive was to play the bigger powers off one another, to keep them constantly off guard, and to use his own isolation as a strong point.

The country has always been impoverished, due mainly to the Kims’ primitive style of Communist rule. So, they have long sought nuclear weapons as a bargaining lever—to put North Korea on the same playing field as the larger powers. In 1993-94, Kim Il Sung started to reprocess plutonium and possibly to build a few A-bombs. President Bill Clinton nearly went to war over the issue. At the last minute, the two reached an accord, called the Agreed Framework. North Korea would stop reprocessing and lock its fuel rods in a storage pool that international inspectors would constantly monitor. The United States would finance two light-water nuclear reactors, for North Korean electricity, and would take steps toward establishing diplomatic relations.

The Agreed Framework gradually unraveled. The United States never supplied the reactors, never established diplomatic relations. North Korea kept the fuel rods locked up but started a covert program to build bombs through enriched uranium, an alternative to plutonium. Soon after Bush took office, U.S. intelligence detected this program; State Department officials confronted the North Koreans, who admitted the activity. Bush proclaimed the end of the Agreed Framework; the North Koreans kicked out the inspectors, unlocked the fuel rods, and reprocessed all 8,000 of them into plutonium.

That was in late 2002. In January 2003, perhaps realizing things had gone too far, the North Koreans tried to replicate the negotiations of a decade earlier, offering to lock the rods back up if the United States kept its side of the bargain on energy aid and diplomatic relations. Bush was having none of it. And that’s where we’ve been ever since.

In the last six months, the Bush administration has softened; officials have offered to reopen all discussions if North Korea first agreed to come back to the talks. But the North Koreans stayed hard, insisting that Bush had to agree first to drop his hostile policy. Kim Jong-il, like his father, was not going to take the first step.

Then Bush’s courting of Beijing paid off. Chinese President Hu Jintao told the North Koreans that he would like to make a state visit to Pyongyang—but that he couldn’t until they returned to the talks. Kim, like his father, values state visits as tokens of legitimacy, at home and abroad. He dropped the no-first-moves rule to win potentially much larger gains.

And so here we are. The dark side of this story is that if it took so much trouble to get these talks back in motion, how far can they go without collapsing? North Korea’s negotiating style is absurdly willful and deceptive. (For more on this, see Scott Snyder’s brilliant book Negotiating on the Edge.) There are ways to deal with this style, but they’re all slow; Clinton’s team endured 50 agonizing sessions to hammer out the Agreed Framework. Will Bush be so patient? Condi Rice is, for now, on the ascendancy in the Bush bureaucracy, but does Cheney—even sans Bolton—have some obstructions up his sleeve? And how far is Rice willing to go to make a deal? Finally, North Korea is the most closed society on earth. Weapons, missiles, and laboratories are said to be hidden in tunnels. A handful of nukes may already have been made. Assuming the best of intentions on both sides (which is quite an assumption), how will any disarmament accord be verified?

The boat is boarding, but it’s going to be a bumpy ride.