Pyongyang options opening up

North Korea wants a nonaggression pact with US, but a lesser assurance may suffice.

One of North Korea's main demands in its current standoff with the world over its weapons programs is for a simple piece of paper: a nonaggression pact with the United States.

It's a slightly strange position from a strange country, sounding like something out of a past era of big-nation balance-of-power diplomacy.

For a number of reasons, President Bush is unlikely to embrace Kim Jong Il at a Rose Garden treaty-signing ceremony anytime soon. But with the door open, at least slightly, for dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang, it's possible this key issue could be amenable to compromise.

That's because the North Koreans may settle for something less than a formal document - and the Bush administration has repeatedly said it has no aggressive intention toward the "Hermit Kimdom."

"More important than a treaty itself is a symbol. What [the North Koreans] really want is some kind of assurance of their security that is credible to them," says Don Oberdorfer, a Korea expert and adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies.

It's possible that relations between the two nations have already soured too much for the current crisis to end anytime soon. And Mr. Oberdorfer - who visited Pyongyang in November - worries that the North Koreans may have decided to mount an all-out effort to become a nuclear power.

But if a diplomatic solution is possible, it will likely have to be preceded by some kind of security dialogue.

US acceptance of direct talks "is a good first step.... Now they really have to engage with North Korea," says Oberdorfer.

The Bush administration made a subtle shift of position on Monday that opened the door to talks.

In a statement issued after a Washington meeting with representatives from South Korea and Japan, the US said it was open to direct discussions with Pyongyang on how North Korea could live up to past agreements.

Saving face?

The US move may have been designed to give both sides a face-saving way out of their current impasse. But publicly, the Bush administration is continuing to insist that North Korea give up its nuclear ambitions before any further incentives from the US are forthcoming.

"We are not going to pay again for North Korea to live up to its obligations," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said on Tuesday.

Mr. Boucher was referring to the now-shattered 1994 deal whereby North Korea agreed to halt work on nuclear programs in exchange for fuel oil and two light-water nuclear reactors.

The US certainly does not want to appear to be succumbing to North Korean blackmail, say experts on the region. Nor would it likely want to sign a formal nonaggression treaty with Pyongyang.

First of all, in the modern world such pacts have been discredited, given that Hitler signed one with Stalin prior to his invasion of Russia in World War II.

From the US point of view a formal pact could tie its hands. It would allow North Korea to present itself as the victim avoiding the blows of a heartless bully. And, perhaps most important, it could give North Korea a lever with which to try to pry the US military out of its current South Korean bases.

"The thing they really want out of this is the withdrawal of American troops," says James Lilley, a former ambassador to China who is now an Asia expert at the American Enterprise Institute.

That said, a deal on this issue is still possible, for the very good reason that the US has no intention of attacking North Korea at the current time, as President Bush has repeatedly said.

By giving security assurances, "in a sense we ... [would not] be giving up anything we're planning on doing," says Stephen Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

Who, where, what

In the past North Koreans have appeared to place great weight on who delivers a message, and where, as well as on what the message says. Thus the 1994 framework deal became possible when former President Carter traveled to Pyongyang.

This suggests that specific assurances, delivered by an official of sufficient rank, might be enough.

Wording would be very crucial, given the seriousness with which the US and the rest of the world would take continued North Korean work on nuclear weapons.

"Given North Korea's past behavior, we would be reluctant to given them the insulation of a formal guarantee," says Stephen Walt of the Kennedy School.

The question then might become: Is it enough? Would some statement of nonaggression satisfy North Korea and offer it a face-saving way out of the current confrontation?

Or would Pyongyang see it as a concession to pocket without giving anything up?

"North Korea is pretty good at accepting concessions and not fulfilling its side of the bargain," says Derek Mitchell, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former Defense Department special assistant in Asian and Pacific affairs.

The US, for its part, may be looking to verification procedures as its bottom-line demand in the current crisis. Having been burned once with the '94 agreement, the US and its allies will likely want intrusive inspections "so we're not every eight years in some crisis over a clandestine program," says Mr. Mitchell.

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