The much-anticipated multilateral negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear-weapons programs begin today, with representatives from the United States, North Korea, Japan, South Korea, China and Russia meeting in Beijing in a desperate attempt to get the Stalinist regime of Kim Jong-Il to agree to give up its nuclear ambitions. Time is running out, as North Korea is moving ahead with nuclear-weapons development at great speed. The State Department already has said it believes Pyongyang has one or two nuclear warheads, and analysts predict they could have a handful more by autumn. Realistically, the process beginning this week is likely to be the last diplomatic effort before the choice facing the United States and the world is either coercive — perhaps military — or accepting North Korea’s nuclear status.
One person who will not be at the negotiating table is President Bush’s arms-control chief, Undersecretary of State John Bolton. After North Korean officials called Mr. Bolton “human scum” and said they would not negotiate with him, the White House tapped the more tentative Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly to represent Washington. We have a lot of respect for the tough-talking Mr. Bolton — who former Sen. Jesse Helms said “is the kind of man with whom I would want to stand at Armageddon.” But keeping him away from Beijing was understandable this time. Just four weeks ago in Seoul, he pointed out that life in the gulag state was “a hellish nightmare” and that Mr. Kim — a “tyrannical dictator” — “keeps hundreds of thousands of people locked in prison camps with millions more mired in abject poverty, scrounging the ground for food.” Everything he said is absolutely true, but it was hardly very diplomatic, so close to the six-way peace talks aimed at forestalling Armageddon on the Korean Peninsula.
In public, representatives of the various negotiating teams are waxing optimistic, or, perhaps more to the point, hopeful. Behind the scenes, many insiders are skeptical that a breakthrough will occur. One cause for worry is the influence of Mitchell Reiss, the newly appointed director for the Office of Policy Planning at the State Department. Mr. Reiss was instrumental in crafting the Clinton administration’s deal to provide fuel to North Korea for a halt in its nuclear projects, and many on Capitol Hill blame him for the failure to include tougher concessions and a more bullet-proof inspections regime. In defending his and Clinton’s failed scheme during the 2000 presidential election, Mr. Reiss predicted that, “The reality is that the next administration, whether Democrat or Republican, is unlikely to substantially change U.S. policy [toward Pyongyang].” If old dogs truly cannot learn new tricks, he is probably right. Mr. Reiss’s re-emergence on the negotiating scene could be interpreted as a sign that the Bush administration is willing to follow its predecessor’s strategy of trying to bribe North Korea to behave.
If the White House is going to use the carrot-and-stick approach, it is not a bad idea to remind the incorrigible North Korean Communists that the stick can be used to hit them hard if they again dare to break any possible agreements. Some experts — such as former CIA Director James Woolsey and retired Air Force Gen. Thomas McInerney — believe that massive air strikes could take out all of Pyongyang’s nuclear facilities and its artillery aimed at Seoul, and win a war in 30-60 days. Other analysts warn of a conflagration involving North Korea’s one-million-man army, with Seoul’s 10 million people lying mortally in its path. Given the formidable costs the military option may pose, Pyongyang’s shrewd negotiating team may view American tough talk as a bluff. They have broken earlier accords without any serious consequences. Certainly, anything short of the toughest negotiating posture will fail again. One goal of the U.S. negotiating team ought to be to convince North Korea that Washington is deadly serious this time.