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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:35 03/09/2007
Commentary (November 2, 2006)

Nuclear Talks: A North Korean Party Trick?

Donald Kirk (Scholar and Commentator on Korean Affairs)

North Korea has decided to return to the six-party talks it boycotted for the past year. That puts off, temporarily, the debate about whether the United States should agree to direct bilateral dialogue with anyone in Pyongyang. When the talks do convene, the chief US negotiator, Christopher Hill, can sit down with his North Korean counterpart, Kim Kye-gwan, on the sidelines of the six-party process - away from negotiators for China, Russia, Japan and South Korea.

Then both sides can bask in the sense that they have had their way: North Korea, by talking directly to the US; and Washington, by agreeing to do so only while representatives of the other countries are elsewhere in the building.

The prospect of one-on-one talks between US and North Korean negotiators no doubt gives rise to other hopes. Namely, that North Korea can be talked into giving up its nuclear programme. Such optimism, though, would not be justified. One may be absolutely sure that Pyongyang is returning to the table from what it perceives as a position of strength. That perception is rooted in its belief that its test of a nuclear device on October 9 makes it a member of the exclusive club of nuclear powers.

Mr Hill has said flatly that North Korea's test did not give it membership in the club - and that the US would not negotiate on that basis. But that issue will be trivial compared to the much larger question of what North Korea will ask the US to do in return for giving up its nuclear programme.

Pyongyang has proved that it is capable of exploding a nuclear device in an underground tunnel. So it is sure to press the case for an outlay of billions of dollars to build the reactors needed to help fulfill its energy requirements. That was North Korea's point at the time of the agreement on September 19 last year. In that deal, Pyongyang appeared to say it would stop making nuclear weapons - only to demand the next day that the US first make good on its promise to supply nuclear-energy reactors under the failed 1994 Geneva framework agreement.

That demand by itself was absurd, considering that North Korea refused to provide any credible way to monitor compliance. Now, however, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, in his diabolical way, figures he can reinforce the demand. He could do that by holding out the threat of further nuclear tests if Washington does not come around to a deal that would be even bigger and better than the 1994 agreement.

The Chinese hosts clearly wanted the talks to resume. Beijing went along with UN Security Council sanctions on any dealings with North Korea that might support its weapons programmes, showing its opposition to such schemes. Beijing, moreover, has taken the US to task for a lack of "flexibility" - code language for the refusal of the Bush administration to compromise on North Korea's demands.

As if North Korea's nuclear programme were not enough, negotiators have another issue to talk about: Pyongyang's demand that the US give up the restrictions placed by the US Treasury Department on Macau's Banco Delta Asia and other firms doing business with North Korea.

The talks seem sure to result in more disillusionment. But they do have the advantage of putting off North Korea's rise as a serious nuclear power. They also relieve the Bush administration of having to worry much about North Korea before next week's mid-term congressional elections.

Make no mistake, though: Pyongyang's decision to return to the talks marks another inconclusive step in a long struggle. It's possible that these, too, will break down, leaving the US and others to figure out yet again how to cope with the North's nuclear ambitions.

All that is certain is that Mr Kim sees the talks as a forum in which to press what he believes is the advantage of having tested a nuclear device. What is not certain is how firmly the US and others are prepared to stand up against his ridiculous demands.

(Originally appeared in the November 2, 2006 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, reproduced here with permission.)

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