- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 9, 2003

WASHINGTON, Jan. 9 (UPI) — For U.S. allies in Asia, there was no argument over meaning: The Bush administration said it would be willing to talk directly to North Korea on how Pyongyang could meet its nuclear treaty obligations.

"A significant change in the (U.S.) position," crowed an analyst in Seoul quoted in Wednesday's Korean Herald. The Korean Times haled it as "A diplomatic triumph for Seoul."

It seems, however, that North Korea wasn't fooled. After issuing demands as recent as this week for talks with the United States, Pyongyang on Thursday announced an offer to hold talks — with South Korea.

Since October, when news first broke that North Korea had a secret nuclear missile development program, the communist North's strident call for dialogue with the United States has found a sympathetic ear in Asia, particularly in South Korea. But the Bush administration had refused to meet directly unless Pyongyang dropped its nuclear programs, and this time for good.

The joint statement that emerged from the U.S. State Department Tuesday following talks between American, South Korean and Japanese diplomats said, "The U.S. delegation explained that the United States is willing to talk to North Korea about how it will meet its obligations to the international community."

In Seoul and Tokyo, this statement understandably looked like a softening of the Bush administration's hard line.

"It can be seen as a difference between 'visually giving up the nuclear weapons program' and 'expressing its intent to give up the nuclear weapons program,'" Lee Tae-sik, the head of South Korea's delegation to Washington, explained to Korean journalists after the statement's release.

In Washington, the statement got a different reading. "Talks" did not mean "negotiations."

"The United States will not provide quid pro quos to North Korea to live up to its existing obligations," the State Dept. said.

In other words, no negotiations were in the offing.

Chuck Downs, a former advisor to the House Republican leadership and author of "Over the Line: North Korea's Negotiating Strategy," says it sounds as if the only reason the administration "wants to deal with the North Koreans right now is to remind them of their obligations and perhaps to clarify the U.S. position. That's not negotiation."

Still, considering earlier U.S. statements, the words "willing to talk" sounded intriguing.

Then State Department spokesman Richard Boucher used the word "dialogue" while commenting on Tuesday's joint statement. While dialogue may not be the same as negotiations, it began to look as though Washington was prepared for something more than the United States lecturing North Korea and Pyongyang not being allowed to lecture back.

"I will remind what the president said yesterday. He said we will have 'dialogue,'" said Boucher.

People with long memories of diplomacy were reminded of the apology that wasn't an apology made by the Bush administration to the Chinese government in 2001. In April of that year, a Navy spy plane tangled with a Chinese fighter — literally — and sent it, albeit unintentionally, crashing into the ocean off southern China. The damaged American aircraft was forced to land at a Chinese airbase and its crew was taken into custody.

China demanded an apology before releasing either crew or craft, and the standoff lasted nearly two weeks until Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell "expressed their sincere regret over your missing pilot and aircraft…. We are very sorry for the entering of China's airspace."

The State Department, however, refused to categorize the statement as an apology for the incident.

So it's worth reading on with Boucher on the message to the North Koreans.

"We cannot talk about that subject (international compliance) on our own if we are going to have a dialogue with North Korea about how North Korea's going to meet their obligations. They have to be willing to talk about how they are going to meet their obligations."

Then finally Boucher said, "And really, North Korea has to be willing to meets its obligations for this to serve any particular purpose."

Pyongyang took a day to decide not to bite for now, and, in fact, to pointedly snub the United States. It instead proposed Thursday to South Korea that the two countries hold ministerial-level talks Jan. 21-24 as part of an occasional series of meetings that began with a Nobel-winning summit in June 2000.

Given the South Koreans' declarations about engagement with the North, this dialogue would likely be a real one, ostensibly about unification. Without doubt, the nuclear tensions will top the agenda and the United States was pointedly left off the invitation.

So, what about the Bush administration's offer to talk?

"I'd say at best it's a fine-tuning, an improvement in the way we talk about our position. That's a good thing," said Richard Bush, an Asian policy expert at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

And they talk about the East being inscrutable.


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