Should US hold bilateral talks with N. Korea?

A Chinese delegation visited Kim Jong-il this week to press for reengagement on the North's nuclear program. The US, which has said it's open to talks, must deal with a deeply suspicious S. Korean leadership.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

The United States faces conflicting pressures over whether to engage in bilateral dialogue with North Korea that South Korea's leaders fear will lead to recognition of North Korea as a nuclear power.

North Korea's leader Kim Jong-il was quoted Friday by China's Xinhua news agency as saying he was open to "bilateral and multilateral talks" to resolve "relevant issues." Mr. Kim reportedly made the remarks after meeting with a Chinese envoy.

The interest of the US in engaging in bilateral dialogue with North Korea in hopes of getting the North to return to six-party talks on its nuclear program has become a matter of intense debate between Washington and Seoul, which has charged that the North is using nuclear weapons as "a tool" for "communist unification" of all Korea.

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The United States has said it's ready for bilateral talks, but the State Department says it has not yet responded to North Korea's invitation for US special envoy Stephen Bosworth to go to Pyongyang.

Mr. Bosworth, recently in Seoul, is believed to have conveyed the deep doubts of South Korea's conservative president, Lee Myung-bak, who has said North Korea must completely "denuclearize" as a prelude to any new agreement.

Michael Green, a former senior adviser on Asia under George W. Bush, says "senior policymakers on North Korea" with whom he has talked of late "have close to zero expectations of a breakthrough."

"So they will talk," says Mr. Green, now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Georgetown University, "but I doubt [the US] will back off much" on insistence on adherence to sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council in the wake of North Korea's second nuclear test on May 25.

Mr. Green says that he doubts US officials "will abandon the six-party process in pursuit of bilateral talks." Rather, he predicts, "they'll do both."

Call for a Nixon to China approach

South Korea's President Lee's tough line faces formidable opposition from South Korean liberals, who wish to perpetuate the Sunshine policy initiated by the late Kim Dae-jung during his presidency from 1998 to 2003.

Mr. Kim, who died on Aug. 18, signed a joint declaration with Kim Jong-il during the first inter-Korean summit in June 2000.

Chung Dong-young, whom Lee defeated in the 2007 presidential election, was to call Friday for President Barack Obama to invite Kim Jong-il to Washington in keeping with Mr. Obama's campaign expression of willingness to talk to the leaders of countries hostile to the US.

In planned remarks at the National Press Club in Washington, Mr. Chung said a summit between Mr. Obama and Mr. Kim would be analogous to the summit between former President Richard M. Nixon and China's leader Mao Zedong in Beijing in 1972.

Chung, who served as unification minister under Lee's leftist predecessor, acknowledged that "The North Korean leadership's behavior makes it hard to trust them."

But, he argued, "what's more important is to know exactly what their real intentions are" and "seize this new opportunity of dialogue."

Limited initial goal

US officials have made clear that initial talks will not go beyond the objective of getting the North to return to multilateral dialogue – something North Korea has declared it will never do.The general sense is that bilateral talks would serve as a chance to get acquainted in view of the apparent softening of North Korea's confrontational policy that began when former President Bill Clinton spent three hours and 17 minutes with Kim Jong-il in early August.

Mr. Clinton's visit was ostensibly unofficial, a chance to bring home two women who were captured while filming along the Tumen River border with China, but he briefed Mr. Obama, and presumably Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, after getting back.

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