North Korea: Should We Talk, Kim?

Two perplexing outbursts from the North Korean government last week have Bush administration officials in a bitter debate about how to handle a possible three-way nuclear-arms talk with Chinese officials in Beijing this week. Just last week North Korean leader Kim Jong Il had opened the door to discussions with the United States by dropping his insistence on direct negotiations with Washington, D.C., alone. At the State Department, Colin Powell's aides were celebrating that shift as a foreign-policy triumph and began planning the three-way session. But then Kim dropped a diplomatic bombshell: the Hermit Kingdom's Foreign Ministry announced that it was successfully reprocessing its 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods because it needed a "powerful physical deterrent"--nukes, in other words--after the U.S. victory against Iraq. Moreover, the North made it clear that the Beijing meeting would be only a head-to-head session with the Americans. That undercut George W. Bush's desire for a multilateral session, with the Chinese applying their own pressure on their old North Korean allies. To make matters worse, China's ambassador in Seoul told South Korean radio that Beijing had no plans to mediate anyway.

Doves in the Bush administration argue that the Foreign Ministry statement had been mistranslated--after all, U.S. intelligence has detected no signs that reprocessing has begun. Hawks argue that Kim wants a nuclear arsenal. "They certainly intend to reprocess, which is their first public acknowledgment of a nuclear-weapons program," said one senior administration official. At the White House, officials suspect the North was trying to be purposely ambiguous about whether it has started reprocessing. Either way, U.S. policy has tilted once more toward uncertainty about whether it's worth talking at all.

North Korea: Should We Talk, Kim? | News