If North Korea really does want the multilateral talks now hinted at by Pyongyang officials, it would mark the first major concession by hard-boiled Korean negotiators since the North admitted a secret uranium program last October.
If genuine, North Korea's shift toward a softer policy may be an important diplomatic consequence of a US campaign in Iraq that has suddenly featured graphic images of Saddam Hussein's statue being toppled in a city square in Baghdad, analysts say. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, who has nearly as many public statues of himself, has been touring military bases in the North for two weeks. South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun said Saturday that the North is fearful the US will next turn its military sites on Pyongyang. Officials in Seoul said Sunday that by dropping demands for direct talks with the US, the North is taking a "significant step toward opening."
Analysts offer various interpretations of the North's move. Some see it as a sign that Kim has few options. Others say it is a way for the North to appear reasonable on the world stage. Still others call it a "buying time" strategy reminiscent of cold war years when Soviets proposed talks when they felt their capability was lagging.
The North's hint came via an interview conducted by the official KCNA news service with a North Korean Foreign Ministry official - a format often regarded as a quasi-official statement of policy. If the US is prepared to make a "bold switchover," North officials said, they "will not stick to any particular dialogue format" in negotiations. Less reported is a caveat from the North suggesting that multilateral talks would require the US to "give up its hostile attitude" toward the North. "That can mean any of a thousand things," says Shim Jae-hoon, an expert on North Korea here. "We don't know what it means."
The White House is unlikely to back too far down from a simple position that North Korea must "abandon" its two nuclear programs in a way that is verifiable, as Secretary of State Colin Powell argues. The hard question, experts say, will be verification. Even if Kim declares he has abandoned his uranium and plutonium programs, it is unlikely the US will accept less than total verification - requiring wide and unimpeded access to North Korean sites that have never been opened to the outside world. On Friday, North Korea unflatteringly compared UN inspections to "dropping our pants."
A number of factors unfavorable to Mr. Kim appear to have spurred this latest move. The Iraq war has brought a degree of shock and awe to North Korean thinking - "petrified," is the word used by President Roh in an interview with The Washington Post. Pressure from China, which supplies more than half the North's energy, is another possible cause, diplomatic sources say. Nor is Kim unaware of the needs of the South Koreans. The biggest proponent of the kind of massive aid and rebuilding Kim desires are unification-minded officials in Seoul. But in recent months, the nuclear standoff has started to seriously harm the South Korean economy.
Last week, as well, the UN Security Council took up the question of the North's withdrawal from the Nonproliferation treaty - essentially forcing Pyongyang into a multilateral framework. Add to this list a Friday announcement that US troops in Korea will likely be shifted south of the DMZ, below the Han River, as soon as possible. That is bound to have caught the attention of North military officials, analysts say, since US troops would no longer be "hostage" to Northern guns if the US conducted strikes, say, on the North's nuclear reprocessing facility.
Since October, the North has kicked out UN inspectors and blocked cameras that were watching casks of sealed plutonium fuel rods. it is estimated the North could produce enough fissionable material for a nuclear bomb at least every other month.
The US State Department response to the North proposal was mild, and several US officials said it still needed to be "studied." Pyongyang officials say the key to the talks is US "sincerity," suggesting that any talks would have to be comprehensive - that the North would have to receive energy and access to international funds as part of any settlement. In the North's world view, say experts here like Paik Hak-soon of the Sejong Institute, the North does feel the US has a history of "consistently backing out of deals it makes" with the North.
Dr. Paik is one of a large brain trust in Seoul that helped create the "Sunshine Policy" of the former Kim Dae Jung government. The policy seeks aid and gradual exchange and dialogue with the North. President Roh seeks to expand this policy, but agrees with the US that the nuclear crisis must first be resolved. In this school of thinking, Kim's nuclear program is a bargaining chip to achieve talks with the US and leverage for aid. "What the North has wanted, dating to the early '90s, is economic renewal," Paik says.
South Korean conservatives question this idea. "The North never before used a 'bargaining chip' argument as a rationale for developing nuclear weapons," says a former high ranking south Korean official. "In '94 and even in '98, you never heard that the North needed a nuclear program to get direct talks with the US. Their program is two decades old."
From the White House perspective, North Korea's recent change appears to vindicate their hard-line policy with a country President Bush termed an "axis of evil." White House officials are more likely to turn the issue of sincerity on Pyongyang. The secret enriched uranium program suggests that Kim is quite willing to act outside of its bargains.
In choosing to conduct a clandestine program, the North broke as many as five pacts it had signed, including the nonproliferation treaty, a nuclear-free zone treaty signed with the South.
A top US diplomat here, upon hearing of the certainty felt by many in South Korea that North's efforts at a nuclear program is only a tactical bluff, responded, "Well, I hope they are right."
But the official suggested that with the kinds of international dangers and potential threats to the US from such weapons, it would be irresponsible for Washington to make such an assumption.