US will press Pyongyang at talks
N. Korea relented Friday to multilateral meetings, and the US plans to push for nuclear inspections.
Seizing on North Korea's agreement to hold six-party talks, the Bush administration is already moving toward a tough position that will stress verification and cessation of the North's nuclear programs through inspections. The US could disengage from the meeting if the North appears to "lack seriousness," say highly placed US officials.Skip to next paragraph
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At the same time, six-party talks with Asian neighbors will allow South Korea, Japan, and China to explain in detail a series of "carrots," including energy, access to loans, and normalized relations with Japan, should the North cooperate. The time and place of the negotiations are not yet known.
For months, Kim Jong Il's military dictatorship has engaged in a standoff of threats and provocations. US officials now say those months have been a "test" of US and Asian resolve - that the North hoped the US would buckle and agree to bilateral talks, meanwhile gaining sympathy from key quarters in Russia and China.
"I think the North sees their strategy is going nowhere," says a source intimately familiar with current negotiations. "They've been probing, trying to test how firm the White House is, how firm [South Korean president] Roh is. And there hasn't been much give. Kim thought Russia and China might close with him. But just the opposite took place. Now it is August and they haven't got anywhere to go. They played skillfully. But there are no tricks left."
Underscoring a tough US opening position, Japanese news sources Sunday said US and Japanese officials are discussing nuclear inspection teams, not from the United Nations, but drawn from all five negotiating partners. The North has steadily warned, and did so again Saturday, that any efforts to bring its case to the UN Security Council would be a prelude to war.
The newly proposed inspections teams would enter North Korea to check on the status of plutonium and secret uranium programs. Some experts doubt that Kim Jong Il will allow such teams to enter his closed society, even with participants from erstwhile allies like Russian and Chinese.
For talks to work, the "right atmosphere" must be created for the North, argues Ralph Cossa of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Honolulu branch. That means: "Kim must be persuaded that there are a lot of benefits to dismantling his program, and that nuclear weapons will make a collapse of his regime more likely. Right now, he thinks the opposite."
In the past, North Korea has used talks to buy time. But if upcoming negotiations are seen as a delaying tactic, sources say - stringing along the partners while at the same time moving quickly to develop atomic capability - the US could lobby to shut down talks.
"They can't drag this out," says one source, speaking of the North.
Yet, that's precisely Pyongyang's strategy in going along with talks, argue some experienced Asia and North Korea watchers.