Looking For A Deal This Time?
The United States and North Korea may be reassessing their deadlock
Like any good diplomat, Christopher Hill knows how to dampen expectations before sitting down to hash out a deal. But more than most envoys, Hill, the top U.S. negotiator in talks resuming in Beijing this week over North Korea's nuclear weapons programs, has ample reason to let some skepticism show.
Fifty-two frustrating months into a confrontation with North Korea over its nuclear weapons programs, the six-nation talks established to rein in Pyongyang's atomic breakout have, so far, netted nothing. Nothing, that is, except neglected promises on paper. In that time, North Korea has tested ballistic missiles and an atomic bomb, declared itself a nuclear power, and multiplied its supply of plutonium from enough for one or two bombs to as many as 13-with most estimates now suggesting six to eight.
Even advocates for negotiations increasingly suspect that, despite its decision to rejoin talks, the North has made a strategic choice to stick with nuclear weapons as the ultimate deterrent to any effort to dislodge Asia's most secretive and anti-American regime. Time, it seems, has been working against Hill and others seeking a deal: With Pyongyang's nuclear buildup and its seeming judgment that the administration is tied down by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il may believe that he can wait out President Bush and gain global acquiescence to the North's nuclear status. The U.S. bargaining position, says Gary Samore, director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, is "really much weaker."
But it is not just the North's prickly intransigence that has made Hill's task look titanic. Policy struggles within the administration have led to fits of incoherence-or simply straitjacketed U.S. officials assigned to bargain with the North. The lines of battle have pitted hawks, who publicly back the negotiations with the communist North but privately see them as a dead end, against those who favor engagement. "We had warfare going on the entire time I was there," recalls David Straub, a former Korea policy aide who resigned from the State Department last year.
A window on these debates opened last month after the resignation of John Bolton, a key hard-liner who served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. "Six-party talks have not worked," Bolton said in Tokyo. "Over time," he declared, "the only answer to the North Korean nuclear weapons program is the collapse of the regime." Despite repeated professions of support for a diplomatic approach, Bush himself has shown ambivalence at times about dickering with a dictatorship. He jettisoned the Clinton-era outreach to the North and did not conceal his personal antipathy toward Kim.
As the diplomatic stalemate wore on, hawks found a tool with unexpected capacity to reach out and hurt Kim's regime: a crackdown on money laundering, counterfeiting of U.S. dollars, and other illicit, money-making trade. The administration announced sanctions on a Macao bank alleged to be laundering money for North Korea. That happened just before Hill and envoys from South Korea, Japan, China, Russia-and North Korea-inked a joint statement on principles for nuclear disarmament in return for security assurances, normalization of relations, and economic and energy aid.