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Commentary (February 24, 2004)

Six Party Talks: Guess Who's in the Catbird Seat

Larry Niksch (U.S. Congressional Research Service)

As another round of the six party talks in Beijing approaches on Feb. 25, a look back to February 2003 can leave one astounded over the diplomatic fortunes of the two chief antagonists. A year ago, North Korea appeared headed toward the status of an isolated international pariah through its brazen actions and threats. The U.S. seemed to be in an ascendant position. It issued communiques with other concerned nations criticizing North Korea's actions. It succeeded in securing six party talks. At the six party meeting in Beijing in August 2003, a U.S. official declared: "We're letting them dig their own grave." The Bush administration believed that North Korea was self-destructing and was alienating the other participants. U.S. officials spoke confidently of securing China's support. Administration officials remain emboldened, citing Libya's decision to give up weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) as the example for North Korea to follow.

However, a broader look does not appear to fit the administration's optimistic analysis. North Korean diplomacy has placed key items of Pyongyang's agenda at the top of the negotiating agenda: North Korea's proposal for a formal nonaggression security guarantee from the U.S. and Pyongyang's proposed freeze of its plutonium program. China, South Korea, and Russia speak positively of these proposals and declare that the U.S. must address North Korea's concerns. Japan alone seconds the U.S. position that North Korea must commit first to a "complete, irreversible, verifiable" dismantling of its nuclear programs and take concrete measures toward that end.

Expressions of skepticism about U.S. claims of a secret North Korean uranium enrichment (HEU) program now come from Chinese, Russian, and ROK officials. North Korea is receiving cash from China ($50 million in October 2003), and increased fuel and food from China, economic aid from South Korea, and economic aid from Russia. Even the Bush administration has offered North Korea "security assurances," which would be more concessionary than the nuclear security guarantee offered in the 1994 Agreed Framework.

North Korea's successes are the result of a negotiating strategy that plays on the psychological fears of the other parties coupled with a concerted propaganda strategy to advance Pyongyang's agenda. After each of the Beijing meetings, North Korea criticized the meetings, criticized the U.S. position, and warned that it saw no usefulness in the meetings and likely would not participate again. Then after repeated warnings, North Korea made "new" proposals. After the April meeting, North Korea hammered away on its proposal for a formal U.S.-North Korean nonaggression pact. In the aftermath of the August meeting, North Korea proposed a "freeze" of its plutonium nuclear program while asserting that a nonaggression guarantee was necessary to prevent the Bush administration from staging an "Iraq-like" unilateral attack. Pyongyang contended that a freeze was a logical "first stage," employing enticing captions, such as "simultaneous actions," "action vs. action," "simultaneous package deal," "bold concession," and "noninterference in our economic development." While promoting these proposals, North Korea steadily escalated the denials of an HEU program.

Other governments, apprehensive over North Korea's threat to abandon the talks, sought to react positively to persuade Pyongyang to agree to future meetings. President Bush acceded to China's overtures to offer multilateral security assurances. China began to press for a freeze as an integral part of any agreement. Public and elite opinions in China and South Korea reacted favorably to North Korea's proposals, clearly influenced by Pyongyang's propaganda. These positive reactions inevitably have led others to question U.S. positions, including the U.S. claim of a secret North Korean HEU program.

North Korea has been able to exploit weaknesses in U.S. strategy. The administration's unwillingness to offer detailed, comprehensive settlement proposals has given Pyongyang an open playing field to advance its proposals into a dominant position in the talks. Other governments have nothing to respond to other than Pyongyang's proposals. North Korea is not pressured to make a fundamental policy choice.

The administration's reliance on China also has contributed to North Korea's successes. China has worked hard to organize the talks and has urged the U.S. to issue comprehensive settlement proposals. However, China has tilted toward North Korea on substantive issues. The question of what China wants as an outcome remains unanswered. Is it a complete termination of North Korea's nuclear program or an agreement with more limited obligations? Without a credible answer to this question, the U.S. reliance on China has proven to be an unstable foundation.

The absence of a U.S. response to North Korea's propaganda strategy also has contributed significantly to North Korea's strengthened position. The Bush administration rejected North Korea's nonaggression pact and nuclear freeze proposals but did not challenge the substance of the proposals in order to bring into the open their negative features and hidden agenda. The administration's response to the nonaggression pact proposal was to contend that the Senate would not ratify it. Its response to North Korea's denials of an HEU program has been to assert that North Korea admitted to it in October 2002; this creates at best the perception of a "he said-she said" dispute. The administration hopes that the alleged confession of Pakistan's A.Q. Khan will contain the growing skepticism. However, North Korea already charges that Khan's confession was coerced, and the administration offers no evidence of its own of the HEU program.

North Korea's strengthened position in the six party talks puts two related outcomes within reach of Pyongyang. One is an agenda in future meetings that emphasizes pressure from the other governments on the U.S. to accept an agreement for a limited nuclear freeze that would be designated as a "first phase" but in reality would stand alone, with other phases to be determined through an undefined diplomatic process. The Bush administration likely would reject such pressure; but the result probably would be an erosion and eventual end of the six party talks. Public opinion likely would blame the U.S. for the collapse or would perceive "moral equivalency" between the U.S. and North Korea. This outcome would free North Korea of the threat of international sanctions, assure continued economic support from China and South Korea, and give North Korea more options in advancing its nuclear and missile programs - including an open demonstration of nuclear capabilities with reduced risk of punitive measures from neighboring states. If growing North Korean confidence transformed into overconfidence, North Korea might be tempted to proliferate WMD in high-risk ways.

The big question in the Feb. 25 meeting is whether the Bush administration can regain a dominant U.S. position over the negotiating agenda or whether North Korea will make further progress toward these outcomes.

(Posted here with the permission of Pacific Forum CSIS)

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