Signs indicate that the North Korean nuclear arms talks are about to grind back into gear. It's risky to make predictions about these talks, which have been in suspension for 11 months and haven't amounted to diddly in four and a half years. The last few times I've pointed to optimistic signs, they've turned out to be optical illusions or they've been torn down by the Bush administration's internecine squabbles, Kim Jong-il's paranoiac obstinacy, or a symbiotic blend of both.
Yet something real is happening. On May 13, two high-ranking U.S. officials—Jim Foster, the State Department's chief of Korean affairs, and Joseph DiTrani, the special envoy to North Korea—held a secret meeting in New York with North Korea's ambassador to the United Nations, Park Gil-yon, and his deputy, Han Song-ryol.
The meeting was so secret that, at first, U.S. officials denied it took place and acknowledged it only after the Chinese (who were notified of the session) told the South Koreans (who were not, and, a bit miffed by the exclusion, told the world).
What happened at this meeting suggests that the North Koreans are still interested in striking a deal over their nascent nuclear arsenal—still interested in cashing in their nukes for economic assistance and security guarantees.
Such an accord would be difficult to reach under the most accommodating circumstances, and harder still given that the Bush administration's hard-line wing—Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and, when he last expressed a view on the subject, President George W. Bush himself—takes a hostile stance toward the whole concept of doing diplomacy with the dictator of Pyongyang.
The North Koreans have consistently said that they would return to the negotiations over their nuclear arsenal—specifically, to the six-party talks that include the United States, Russia, China, Japan, and the two Koreas—if the United States dropped its "hostile policy" toward their regime.
At the same time, Kim Jong-il has all along been playing his nuclear chips as bargaining tokens, just as his father, Kim Il Sung, did before him (though his dad played the game more deftly). And while he probably wouldn't mind having a pocketful of nukes in a dangerous world (he has cultivated little else of value), it seems he doesn't yet want to give up the game.
So, his U.N. ambassadors called for the secret meeting, with the formal intent of gaining clarification on the true nature of American policy. Basically, they wanted to know two things: Does the Bush administration respect North Korea's sovereignty? And does it have any intention of invading its territory?
Foster and DiTrani basically assured them on both points.
"North Korea is on a fishing expedition," Jack Pritchard, DiTrani's predecessor as U.S. envoy, told me in a phone interview today. "They're looking for some way to get back to the talks in a face-saving way." (Pritchard, one of the few Americans who have actually negotiated with North Koreans, quit in August 2003 over disagreements with Bush's policies. He now works at the Brookings Institution.)
In short, the meeting—and its resulting assurances—could give the North Koreans the face-saving they need. Certainly they've started making conciliatory rumblings.
One reason may be that Chinese President Hu Jintao has told North Korean officials that he would like to make a state visit to Pyongyang but that he won't do so unless they commit to return to the six-party talks. Kim Jong-il, again like his father, puts tremendous value on state visits from big powers; he sees them as tokens of legitimacy, internationally and domestically.
If the talks resume, will they go anywhere? For a while, probably not. But eventually, maybe—if China keeps up the pressure, if the North Koreans realize they can't play the same shifty games that they've played in the past, and if the Bush administration finally decides to take the talks seriously.
The stakes should be clear. Kim Jong-il's North Korea is a monstrous regime, true. But it's also about to build nuclear weapons, which it will have no hesitation flaunting or—since it has so few other means of acquiring hard currency—selling on the international black market, perhaps to terrorists. At the same time, though the Joint Chiefs of Staff have crafted war plans against North Korea, they have also advised President Bush that the plans carry high risk. They don't know—nobody on the outside knows—where all the targets are; North Korea also has thousands of artillery rockets poised a few minutes' flight time from Seoul; if our missiles and bombs missed a few of them, a retaliatory strike could kill hundreds of thousands of South Koreans. In any case, our allies in the region—South Korea, China, and Japan—have all expressed opposition to the idea of an attack.
At the same time, there have been successful negotiations with North Korea—maddeningly difficult, but successful. The 1994 Agreed Framework, negotiated by the Clinton administration, left open some loopholes (it was meant as a limited accord), but for nine years it kept 8,000 nuclear fuel rods locked up and constantly monitored, preventing North Korea from building as many as 50 A-bombs.
So, what should President Bush do? Stay on his high horse, refuse to negotiate (or, as he once put it, to "reward bad behavior"), and watch one of the world's loosest cannons go nuclear? Or acknowledge the risks, get ready to be annoyed, and sit down at the table? There's still time, maybe one last time, to make a choice.