Nukes on the Table
Talks, yes. But don't expect much more than words
First they test-fire a nuclear bomb. Then they agree to return to nuclear negotiations. North Korea's leaders were back at it last week with their trademark diplomatic twists and turns, agreeing to return to six-country nuclear talks and defying the widely held belief that the talks were, for all intents and purposes, dead.
The surprise move came after secret U.S.-Chinese-North Korean talks in Beijing. The October 9 test blast, although regarded by U.S. officials as a "fizzle," established North Korea as a de facto nuclear power. As such, Pyongyang may have decided that its bargaining position had been permanently strengthened-a view that the Bush administration wants to do its best to repudiate.
Pressures. Still, officials and analysts are puzzling over why the North's secretive leader, Kim Jong Il, gave the nod to resuming negotiations. Earlier, North Korean officials had said they would not bargain until new U.S. financial sanctions were first lifted. There is talk that the sanctions are proving costly to North Korean leaders, and Chinese pressure-including a possible unannounced suspension of oil deliveries-also may have played a role. Kim may be calculating that returning to talks now will weaken pressure from the U.N. Security Council to step up inspections of cargo moving in and out of the North in an effort to prevent weapons transfers.
The expectation is for the six-nation talks-the United States, North Korea, South Korea, China, Russia, and Japan-to pick up by year-end. Two top U.S. diplomats are conferring this week with Asian allies on strategy. No one expects quick progress, and, meanwhile, North Korea continues producing plutonium.
This story appears in the November 13, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.