Playing pingpong with Pyongyang.

Playing pingpong with Pyongyang.

Playing pingpong with Pyongyang.

Military analysis.
Aug. 1 2003 6:21 PM

Pingponging Pyongyang

At last, a sign President Bush wants to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis.

Today brings news of a major concession by North Korea that might indicate a new willingness to end its nuclear-weapons program. "North Korea has dropped its insistence on one-on-one talks with the United States," the Associated Press tells us, "and is ready to accept a U.S. proposal for six-nation negotiations" that would involve Japan, China, and Russia, as well as the United States and both Koreas.

The Los Angeles Times similarly leads its story: "North Korea has apparently dropped a key demand and agreed to a U.S. proposal for six-nation talks." CNN: "Washington has long been pushing for multilateral talks but Pyongyang had previously rejected this demand, instead insisting on one-to-one talks with America." And so on.

The puzzling thing about all these stories is that North Korea hasn't changed its position on talks: The North Korean foreign ministry announced it would take part in multilateral nuclear talks back in mid-April and restated this willingness, publicly and privately, in mid-June and again mid-July.

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On closer inspection, the new promise of negotiations is the result of a compromise as much from Washington as from Pyongyang—though, for several reasons, U.S. officials would rather keep that part hushed up.

Concerns about a North Korean bomb began to stir last October and escalated to crisis around the New Year, with Pyongyang breaking a 1994 agreement, reached with the Clinton administration, to suspend its nuclear-weapons program.

Initially, North Korea did reject proposals for multilateral talks, insisting that it would meet only in face-to-face talks with the United States.

But on April 12, Pyongyang's state-owned news agency, KCNA, quoted a foreign ministry spokesman as saying, "The type of dialogue will not matter if the U.S. is ready to change its policy regarding the settlement of the nuclear issue."

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And from April 23-25, in a trilateral session that seems already to have been forgotten, United States, North Korean, and Chinese diplomats met in Beijing for a first round of talks (which, in fact, went far less disastrously than some hawkish officials tried to paint them at the time).

On June 10, a U.S. official, speaking on background, told Japanese reporters that North Korea might soon agree to participate in broader talks—to include at least Japan and South Korea—possibly in August. Since Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was in Tokyo on that day, it can be inferred that he or one of his aides was the source.

On July 8, North Korean diplomats held unofficial talks with their American counterparts at the United Nations. A week later, Chinese officials told the Tokyo daily Asahi Shimbun that the North Koreans had said at the meeting that they would agree to five-nation talks (Russia was not yet involved) if Washington guaranteed not to undermine the Pyongyang regime.

On July 12, Chinese and North Korean officials held informal talks on the subject, at the conclusion of which—as CNN reported at the time—Pyongyang once again agreed to multilateral talks.

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On July 25, New Zealand's prime minister, Helen Clark, after meeting with South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun, said a round of multilateral talks would begin "as early as next month."

So, what's going on here? Why is North Korea's agreement being heralded today as a new development when, in fact, the shift occurred over three months ago—and was reported at the time by some of the same news agencies that are now calling it a breakthrough?

And why is the Bush administration spinning this story as if Pyongyang's agreement were new and dramatic? It is no coincidence that the spin-laden stories all carry Washington datelines and all quote U.S. officials to the effect that the development marks a North Korean concession.

The one major-daily story with a Seoul dateline, in the Washington Post, has a very different twist. The Post quotes a North Korean foreign ministry spokesman as saying Pyongyang agreed to multilateral negotiations after Washington gave assurances that the two sides could meet one-on-one, separately, during the talks. "Some time ago," the spokesman said, "the U.S. informed the DPRK through a third party that the DPRK-U.S. bilateral talks may be held within the framework of multilateral talks." (DPRK stands for Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the official name of North Korea.)

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In other words, if this report is true, the Americans are coming to the talks after making at least as big a concession as the North Koreans. There will be a multilateral framework, but also—shhhhh!—some bilateral talks within that framework.

The Post report is very credible. After all, during last April's trilateral talks in Beijing, the U.S. and North Korean delegations held separate one-on-one sessions. In fact, many understood those sessions to be de facto bilateral talks—although Bush was unwilling to label them as such—with China serving as host, intermediary, and diplomatic cover. (Some U.S. officials were surprised at the time how actively the Chinese diplomats took part.)

An optimistic theory about why the Bushies are pushing this concession story is that the president has finally realized he has to resolve this crisis. He must stop North Korea from becoming a nuclear power and, more frighteningly still, a nuclear-weapons exporter. There is no good military option to ending the crisis, so he has to pursue diplomatic options. The obstacle is that, in the past, he has publicly and repeatedly waved away diplomacy. He has linked North Korea with Iraq and Iran as an "axis of evil." He has said that negotiating over Pyonyang's nuclear program—offering aid or a nonaggression pact in exchange for a cessation of that program—would be "appeasement," succumbing to "blackmail," "rewarding bad behavior." One-on-one negotiations, which would have the effect of elevating Pyongyang to the same level as Washington, were totally out of the question.

In short, for Bush to send diplomats to the table, he needs to create the impression that Pyongyang has made a key concession. It would seem, at the very least, odd to acknowledge that Pyongyang made this concession last spring and the United States is only now picking up on it.

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A more wary view might see the story as a reflection of the pitched battle within the administration. The Bush team is split between, on the one hand, those who gasp at the prospect of a North Korean bomb and want to negotiate a settlement as quickly as possible and, on the other hand, those who would rather deal with the problem by refusing to bargain and instead pressuring the Pyongyang regime out of existence. (The former faction reacts to the latter by asking, with varying degrees of exasperation, "And how do you propose to do that?" The latter faction's main problem is that it lacks a good answer.)

The key puzzle in this internecine fight is the Thursday news conference in Seoul by Undersecretary of State John Bolton. Just hours before the Russians announced that North Korea would enter into a six-nation negotiation (or, more accurately, that Russia was now joining what was once a five-nation forum), Bolton gave a speech denouncing North Korea as a "hellish nightmare" and its leader, Kim Jong-il, as a "tyrannical dictator"—all true, if, under the circumstances, undiplomatic. More curiously, he also decried Pyongyang's insistence on face-to-face talks as "a one-note piano concerto"—long after he knew (didn't he?) that Pyongyang had moved on to five-finger exercises and beyond.

Bolton has long been seen as the hard-line agent in the State Department, the Cheney-Rumsfeld spy assigned to make sure that Colin Powell and the pinstripe set don't give away the store. But what was this speech in Seoul all about? Was it a classic case of someone not getting the word (as John F. Kennedy said of the U-2 pilot who drifted into Soviet airspace at the height of the Cuban missile crisis)? Was it something more pernicious—the hard-liners trying to doom an impending diplomatic advance? Or was it strictly politics—Bolton providing diplomatic cover, reinforcing the spin that we're hanging tough and only the North Koreans are caving?

One hopeful sign is that the North Koreans didn't get huffy about Bolton's outcry. They're experienced in the bizarre art of screaming at the top of their lungs in public while making a quiet deal behind the scenes. Maybe things are moving forward after all.