Cutting through the diplomatic posturing in Pyongyang, Washington and points in-between, three things have become apparent in the long-running endeavor to persuade North Korea to forgo nuclear weapons:
* The North Koreans have not indicated they are ready to negotiate in good faith.
* Pyongyang is stalling, twisting and turning to buy time to advance its nuclear program.
* The North Koreans fully intend to retain their nuclear arms and to expand their arsenal.
The date on which the Six-Party Talks hosted by China were to resume in Beijing last week has come and gone, with the North Koreans hinting they might be willing to meet the week of Sept. 12. It really doesn’t matter much because, even if they do show up, they can be expected to throw one obstacle after another into the talks that also include the United States, South Korea, Japan and Russia.
Pyongyang’s drum roll in its official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) for the last few days is a good indication of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s thinking. KCNA accused the U.S. “of spitting at the DPRK,” referring to its official name, the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea. “It has seriously insulted its dialogue partner and broken faith with the DPRK.”
Pointing to a routine military exercise the U.S. and South Koreans have mounted annually for years, KCNA said: “It is unimaginable for the DPRK to sit at the negotiating table with the U.S. at a time when the powder-reeking war exercises targeted against it are under way.”
Noting that President George W. Bush, following a congressional mandate, has appointed an official to monitor human rights in North Korea, KCNA said: “We regard this as an absurd and foolish attempt to ‘overthrow the system’ of the DPRK at any cost by adding the ‘human rights’ racket to the nuclear issue.”
Back to the issue of the military drill: “It is intolerable as it is an
Undisguised military blackmail against the DPRK. Dialogue and war exercises can never go together.”
Altogether, none of this suggests a North Korea genuinely interested in negotiating with the U.S. and the other four nations in the Beijing talks. It reminds one of the many months U.S. and North Vietnamese officials spent bickering over the shape of the negotiating table in Paris in the early 1970s.
The reason: Kim Jong-il plans to keep his weapons of mass destruction, no matter what he is offered to shed them. A U.S. Army War College research analyst, Andrew Scobell, has concluded: “One point does seem very clear: [Pyongyang has] an unrelenting focus on maintaining a robust conventional national defense capability and building a nuclear capacity.”
“According to Pyongyang’s propaganda,” Mr. Scobell wrote after nearly a year researching the secretive regime’s plans, “maintaining its military strength is the regime’s foremost priority. This is born out by examinations of implemented policy, planning, and ruminations about the future.”
That conclusion should send policy planners in the White House national security staff, the State Department and the Pentagon scurrying for clean sheets of paper on which to draft a new strategy. They seem to have four choices:
(1) Muddle along: The U.S. might have to go through the motions for a while to avoid blame the talks’ failure, while understanding the talks are not expected to lead anywhere.
(2) Pass to the United Nations: That would be an extension of the “muddle-along policy” since China, which has a veto in the Security Council, and South Korea, which takes a soft approach to North Korea, would not countenance a hard line.
(3) Mount an attack: The conventional wisdom says an assault on Pyongyang’s nuclear facilities would cause a new Korean war that would devastate both sides and stretch U.S. military power, already extended in Iraq, to a breaking point.
(4) Walk away: Tell the North Koreans we no longer consider them serious negotiators, leaving open a possible return to the bargaining table if they show a genuine interest.
An unspoken stipulation to the Chinese and South Koreans: It would be up to Beijing and Seoul to resolve this issue — or see North Korean nuclear arms deployed just across the Yalu River from China and across the demilitarized zone that separates North and South Korea.
Richard Halloran, former foreign correspondent for the New York Times, is a free-lance writer in Honolulu.