According to press reports, representatives of the Bush Administration met with North Korean representatives last month in secret talks and demanded that North Korea dismantle, not freeze or simply deactivate, the Yongbyon reactor as a condition for any substantive US-North Korea talks. I applaud this example of firmness, and hopes that this report is an accurate reflection of Administration policy.
Some will applaud the Administration for engaging in talks with North Korea, and call for the Administration to do in public what it has done in private. This logic maintains that talks in themselves are the priority, and says that the Administration has been foolish to reject talks. Public, bilateral talks on the North’s terms would be a reward for the North’s behavior, and be seen correctly by the North as a United States surrender.
On the other hand, some will condemn the Administration for talking to the North Koreans at all, calling the talks an example of engaging with an illegitimate regime. The goal of US policy towards North Korea must be the elimination of the North’s nuclear capacity. If this can be done through diplomacy, then so be it.
Both sides are under severe pressure in this crisis. The United States is under pressure to resolve the crisis before the North Koreans are able to build any (more) nuclear weapons. The North Korean regime was relying on the fuel oil which was cut off after they revealed their nuclear program, and the military is coming close to being immobilized for lack of gasoline. Thus, both sides are playing a game of brinkmanship. The North Koreans are doing everything possible to panic the United States into resuming aid, from starting their reactor to launching missiles to attempting to capture a US surveillance plane. The Bush Administration is right to refuse to panic. The most likely outcome of bilateral talks, encouraged by North Korea’s nervous neighbors, is that aid would be resumed in return for a suspension of the crisis for a few years. This is unacceptable to the Bush Administration, as it should be.
The Bush Administration is trying to pressure the North Koreans into the unfamiliar environment of dealing with several different countries at once. The Administration has been suggesting multilateral talks, involving North and South Korea, the US, Russia, China and Japan. Multilateral talks would be a disadvantage for the North, as opposed to direct US-DPRK talks. The diplomats of the DPRK have engaged in bilateral talks since the Armistice negotiations in the 1950’s, using alternating strategies of belligerence, hostility, and wrangling over petty details to attempt to win negotiating points. They have never negotiated with several countries at once. In addition, multilateral talks would clarify the positions of our allies and our partners. The South Koreans would be forced to acknowledge the belligerence of the North, and it would be harder to blame American intransigence for the North’s constant threats and provocations. The Japanese would probably back the American position openly, since they are likely to be the targets of North Korean nuclear missiles rather than artillery. The Russians and Chinese would have to acknowledge that North Korean nuclear weapons are a problem.
In bilateral talks, all of these parties would be inclined to pocket the benefits that the US negotiated for while carping about US policy from the sidelines. The outcome of multilateral negotiations is next to impossible to predict, except that it will take a long time. The longer the negotiations take, before a resumption of aid, the more pressure on North Korea to accept the US proposals of complete nuclear disarmament.
The Bush Administration is right to demand the dismantling, not just the suspension, of North Korea’s nuclear program. Whether this is achieved after bilateral negotiations, multilateral negotiations, or through military strikes, this must be the goal of our policy.