Tuesday, November 7, 2006

The American diplomat who helped the Chinese to persuade the North Koreans to return to the negotiations over Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions had it exactly right: “I have not broken out the cigars and champagne quite yet.”

The skepticism of Christopher Hill, assistant secretary of state responsible for East Asia, was quoted in the New York Times as he announced resumption of the Six Party Talks including China, North Korea, the U.S., South Korea, Japan and Russia.

While Mr. Hill didn’t say so, he seemed to have in mind North Korea’s trail of obstruction, deception and bad-faith tactics. Perhaps he even doubted that, in the end, the North Koreans would come to Beijing this month or next to negotiate as promised.

North Korea’s reluctance showed up in small clues. In Beijing, the Americans and Chinese announced North Korea’s decision; the North was silent. The next day, the official (North) Korean Central News Agency carried only a short item saying: “The DPRK decided to return to the six-party talks on the premise that the issue of lifting financial sanctions” will be settled. DPRK is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the country’s official name.

In the same edition, KCNA let loose several blasts at the U.S., one of which claimed that: “The present development clearly testifies to the justice of the decision made by the DPRK to have access to nuclear weapons.”

Speculation ranged widely about why North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-il, suddenly agreed to resume the talks after a year of refusal. Most likely, the North Koreans sought to buy time to work on their nuclear weapons as the test detonation earlier this month may have shown a flaw. Said a Korea-watcher: “The North Korean political leadership was faced with the problem of being unable [despite its high-pitched rhetoric] to conduct another test for some time until that technical issue was resolved.”

Kim Jong-il may also have sought to get the Chinese off his back as they cut off his oil to force him to return to the talks. Beijing took the initiative in arranging the negotiations and lost face when North Korea was defiant.

It is possible Kim Jong-il thinks he is in a better bargaining position now, that the sanctions imposed by the United Nations had hurt, and that he does, indeed, hope to secure the lifting of U.S.-imposed financial sanctions.

Renewed Six Party Talks may slightly ease the South Korea-U.S. friction, causes of which have included disagreements between President Roh Moo Hyun and President Bush over North Korea. Mr. Roh advocates accommodating North Korea, which some in Washington see as appeasing a member of Mr. Bush’s “axis of evil.”

A delegation of retired senior South Korean military officers came to Honolulu recently to suggest the vocal anti-Americanism led by President Roh had endangered their alliance with the United States. The Koreans especially sought to prevent further withdrawal of U.S. military forces from the peninsula beyond those already in motion. The U.S. has 29,000 troops there today and plans to drop that to 25,000 in 2008.

The Korean appeal, however, may have been too late. President Roh has given no sign he will relent before he leaves office in 2008. Likewise, the Bush administration seems to have lost interest in South Korea. Thus U.S. forces will continue to leave.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said those troops are needed elsewhere, such as in Iraq, and South Korean forces are strong enough to repel an attack from North Korea. And U.S officers in Seoul cite difficult issues regarding bases and training sites.

The delegation from the Korea Research of Military Affairs met with American specialists on Korea gathered by the Pacific Forum, the think tank here. To encourage candor, the rules of meeting precluded identifying speakers.

A Korean quickly set the tone: “The current ROK-U.S. alliance is in crisis.” The growth of Korean democracy, with its freedom of dissent and economic expansion contributed to Korean “self-confidence and nationalistic pride,” he said. He noted a 2004 survey of young Koreans found a majority saw Kim Jong-il and Mr. Bush as equal threats to peace.

But asked what Seoul would do to steady the alliance, the South Koreans answered with generalities, such as a proposed blueprint for the 21st century, or with silence.

Richard Halloran is a free-lance writer and former New York Times correspondent based in Honolulu.

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