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Direct talks with N. Korea ahead? Not likely.

Secretary of State Clinton reaffirms commitment to six-party talks. One-on-one dialogue with Kim Jong-il's regime would validate the rogue nation, analysts say.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 6, 2009

North Korean soldiers stand guard near the border of South Korea on July 27. This week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton sought to play down rumors that the US is moving closer to direct talks with North Korea.

Jo Yong-Hak/Reuters

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Washington

The day after her husband succeeded in a high-profile mercy mission to Pyongyang, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton sought to cut short speculation that the US is moving closer to direct talks with North Korea about its nuclear-weapons program.

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"Perhaps [the North Koreans] will now be willing to start talking to us within the context of the six-party talks about the international desire to see them denuclearize," Secretary Clinton said Wednesday on NBC's "Today" show.

Her comments came just hours after former President Bill Clinton left North Korea – after having dined with the reclusive leader Kim Jong-il and secured the release of two jailed American journalists. She added, however, that she is not "counting on" his success leading to any breakthrough with North Korea.

One reason some Korea analysts believe the North is probably no closer to achieving the one-one relations it wants with the US: The North itself has made US engagement more difficult, by declaring itself a nuclear power and blatantly pursuing both nuclear and ballistic missile progress this year.

"They've moved the goal posts," says Jonathan Pollack, a North Korea expert at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. "Their possession of nuclear weapons has also become a defining focus."

Direct talks mean legitimacy

The isolated and unstable North, repeatedly appearing to be on the brink of collapse, has long coveted the legitimacy that direct talks with Washington would bestow, domestically and internationally.

Relations with the US would also ease concerns among the country's elite, especially in the military, about the regime's survival.

For North Korea, "it would be an act of validation or legitimization if the US were willing to engage them one-on-one," says Mr. Pollack, "It's this belief they've had really since the 1980s that, absent an ability to establish a relationship with the US, North Korea will never get its due."

Why legitimize a troublemaker?

But the US has resisted bilateral contacts with Pyongyang, especially since an unsuccessful flirting with normalization at the end of the Clinton administration, for the very reason that Washington has no interest in legitimizing a regime that remains a major source of trouble in a region of keen national security interest to the US.

At the same time, the US wants to keep a focus on the international threat posed by North Korea's belligerence and, in particular, its development of nuclear weaponry. It has also wanted to avoid nervous speculation in capitals including Seoul and Tokyo that Washington might sacrifice long friendships for détente with North Korea.

"The North Koreans have been trying for years to break out of the context of the six-party talks and get to bilateral negotiations with the US, and that effort has irritated both Japan and South Korea immensely," says John Bolton, who was President Bush's ambassador to the United Nations and a Bush administration nonproliferation official. The North Koreans "aren't going to give up their weapons, so in the Bush administration the priority became reassuring Japan and South Korea and making sure they were fully informed of everything that was going on."

Mr. Bolton says only time will tell – in particular following former President Clinton's reporting on his dinner meeting to President Obama – if US resistance to direct talks with the North has weakened. In the meantime, he says, North Korea's Kim is basking in the glow of enhanced legitimacy at home and abroad.

"He's just had an incredible bilateral discussion with an ex-president of the United States," Bolton says. "Right now I don't think he could be happier."

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