The hermit state heads to the table
Five global powers start talks Wednesday with Pyongyang to ease nuclear standoff.
Five of the world's most powerful nations, three of them United Nations Security Council members, meet here Wednesday - driven to the table, amid deepening pessimism, by a tiny country that can't feed or fuel itself, but whose often brilliant machinations could stir a dark whirlwind in Asia.Skip to next paragraph
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To say that North Korea is exceptional - like no other nation on earth - may be an understatement. It does not think, act, plan, or dream according to any ordinary frame of reference, experts say. It was born as an anti-Japanese guerrilla movement, and in many ways has evolved the clinical characteristics of a mass cult. It is set up to function - through strict military logic and a powerful homegrown ideology - as a single unified organism whose purpose is to ensure the survival of the Kim family dynasty as the future rulers of all Korea.
Rumors of grumbling do emerge from the "black box," as the fortress-regime of Kim Jong Il is sometimes called. Yet after starvation took millions of lives in the late 1990s - a calamity that might shatter most regimes - Mr. Kim retains at least the nominal loyalty of his people. The regime is grudgingly admired even by critics for its diplomatic cunning and for its capacity to endure hardship.
"[North Korea] can live for five, 10, 20 years in a state of half-collapse,'' says a senior US official. "What's stopping them?"
So as diplomats gather around a six-sided table at Beijing's Diaoyutai State Guest House, hope is tempered with realism about how quickly the North will bargain away its only real card, the nuclear option.
For the Chinese hosts, the definition of success in the three-day talks is being officially downgraded to hopes for subsequent meetings, and future talks between the parties - North Korea, the US, South Korea, Russia, Japan, and China. [See related story at right.]
Washington has achieved the format it has long wanted - multilateral talks aimed at collective pressure on the North. But most analysts feel it is too early in the process to expect the North to back off its weapons accession, let alone allow the levels of verification of weapons needed by any credible international inspection team.
Back in February, as it became clear that Kim was creating an entirely new dynamic in East Asia by scrapping its earlier agreements with the US and withdrawing from the Nonproliferation Treaty. A senior US official compared the Asian nuclear crisis to the Iraq weapons crisis. It was still "very early" in the game in North Korea.
After Saddam Hussein statues began to topple in Baghdad, the Chinese decided it was time to take a decisive hand in bringing Kim to the table - leading to three-party talks in Beijing last April. Those talks ended in frustration, and a claim by the North that it was busy reprocessing its formerly sealed plutonium fuel rods, to obtain weapons grade material. The US has long suspected the North already has two crude nuclear devices, albeit untested.
For the North, it may still be quite early to arrive at a deal.
The six-way talks allow the North to probe the resolve and "bottom line" of the nations gathered at the table. The talks also give the North a chance to score large propaganda points at home by showing TV coverage of how the world's great powers have been forced come to Beijing to deal with their "Dear Leader," as Kim is called.
Whether or not the White House feels it is possible to achieve anything - and deep divisions remain in the administration over the advisability of talks - there is consensus that the format will allow for a graphic case to be made in front of five other parties about the ill effects of a regime whose weapons could trigger an arms race in Asia. The US had wanted to make this kind of presentation at the UN Security Council.
In Washington, even moderates who generally support talks feel the North's leadership may now have decided to develop a full-blown nuclear capability.
"I'm pretty pessimistic because when you look at the North Korean logic, it seems like they will want to develop an overt nuclear weapon," says a senior defense analyst in Washington. "They may just be bargaining for time, appearing to be cooperative by coming to the meeting."