TIME TO DEAL

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill and North Korea's deputy foreign minister, Kim Gye Gwan, had a private dinner meeting in Beijing on July 9. Three hours later, North Korea's state television network interrupted its 10:45 p.m. weather forecast to make a special announcement. A broadcaster in a dark blue suit declared that Pyongyang was returning to the six-nation talks on its nuclear-weapons program, which the North has boycotted for the last 13 months. "The U.S. officially stated that it recognizes North Korea as a sovereign state, has no intention of invading and will have bilateral talks [with Pyongyang] within the six-party-talk framework," the announcer intoned, explaining why the country's fuzzy-haired dictator, Kim Jong Il, had decided to resume negotiations.

Pyongyang's decision to rejoin the talks, scheduled to commence in Beijing around July 27, followed what U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called an "intense" period of diplomacy. American, Chinese and South Korean government officials had all met with their North Korean counterparts in previous weeks--and all had dangled carrots in front of the isolationist, Stalinist country to draw it back to the bargaining table. China, North Korea's key ally, has offered to send President Hu Jintao on a state visit to Pyongyang. South Korea has done much more. It has promised to supply the impoverished North with 2,000 megawatts of electricity annually if Pyongyang agrees to dismantle its nuclear-weapons programs.

The Bush administration's main concession is rhetorical. It has maintained a hard-line policy on North Korea for years, and does not believe in rewarding bad behavior. But in the last few months Washington has notably softened its tone toward Pyongyang. Just before making an Asian tour in July, Rice seemed to make a point of identifying the North as "a sovereign state"--a remark Pyongyang interpreted as a retraction of her earlier description of the regime as "an outpost of tyranny." "The North often cares more about form than substance," says Ryoo Kihl Jae, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. "Washington's less hostile, if not sweet, words were a key reason for its return to the six-part talks."

The big question, of course, is whether the talks will accomplish anything. Many analysts are skeptical, noting that nukes are North Korea's only strategic asset and hence cherished by Kim as regime-survival tool. This will be the fourth round of six-party discussions with Pyongyang, the first three having achieved almost nothing. That's not quite the way the Bush administration sees it, however. "During the first round of talks, we agreed on a goal--denuclearizing the Korean peninsula," a State Department official told NEWSWEEK. "At the second round, the North agreed to some procedures on how the talks would proceed, and at the third round, we and the South Koreans, Japanese and others actually put proposals on the table." But as Rice made clear last week, "The real issue is, is North Korea ready to make a strategic choice to give up its nuclear-weapons program?" Cho Gab Je, a senior editor at the South Korean magazine Monthly Chosun and longtime North Korea watcher, is doubtful. "Kim will enjoy the game," he says, "but he will not make clear whether he accepts the South's [electricity] offer or not--and he will be vague about dismantling the programs."

But unlike in the previous sessions, the United States and its allies are expected to press the North more aggressively this time to make some concessions--and seem fairly unified on that point. In the past, North Korea has exploited a philosophical difference between Washington and Seoul on how best to deal with Pyongyang. South Korea tends to take a soft line with its neighbor, while the U.S. approach has been to demand that Pyongyang ditch its nukes before offering any significant concessions.

But the United States and South Korea may not be as far apart as some think. In the last couple of months, South Korea's foreign minister and President Roh Moo-hyun have had consultations in Washington, and Seoul informed the Bush administration of its electricity-supply idea before presenting it to the North. "We welcome the proposal, and thought it was very constructive, imaginative and certainly one we can incorporate into the overall six-party proposal," said Hill. "[But] we have a lot of work ahead of us, and people should not believe that this issue will be solved in the next two weeks or in this next round." The talks may initially center around a U.S. proposal, put forward 13 months ago, which outlines security guarantees and economic aid for Pyongyang in return for the elimination of its nukes.

North Korea is believed to have two nuclear-weapons programs--an older one based on plutonium and a newer one based on uranium enrichment. Noriyuki Suzuki, director of Radiopress, Japan's semiofficial North Korea monitoring service, says that if the United States insists that North Korea abandon and dismantle both the plutonium and uranium-enrichment programs, then "the coming talks may end without bearing fruit." North Korea has not acknowledged that it has a uranium-enrichment program.

Seoul's offer to provide substantial amounts of electricity to the North, by stringing power lines across the demilitarized zone, has created a more positive atmosphere for the talks, some experts believe. North Korea is in dire need of power. Still, the proposal is problematic for several reasons. For one thing, the power-distribution program wouldn't start until 2008, and it will be expensive, as much as $2.4 billion initially and about $1 billion annually after that. What's more, North Korea's electricity-distribution network badly needs modernization, which will cost even more money. According to Monthly Chosun's Cho, Kim would much rather have power plants inside his country than put crucial electricity switches under Seoul's control. He says the South Korean government has not fully explored the technical issues related to the idea, and that Seoul should offer the North electricity only after verifying the complete dismantlement of Pyongyang's nuclear programs.

Political conservatives in America, including Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute, also oppose the idea of trying to mollify Kim. "Appeasement [only] doubles the North's appetite for further concessions," Eberstadt says. "For almost three years, North Korea has been the world's most flagrant nuclear violator, and it's suffered almost no penalties for its violations. Instead, it's been rewarded with offer after offer, new blandishments." The problem is, outside of starting a war or watching the North Koreans starve, the antinuke coalition doesn't have many options--especially given China's reluctance to do anything that might hasten the regime's collapse and cause a massive influx of refugees.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to progress in the next round is an old one: the North's nuclear issue goes beyond its foreign relations. With his economy bankrupt and dissent apparently growing, Kim essentially needs to manufacture tense relations with the United States to justify his tight control of the people. "The nuclear issue diverts people's attention from real domestic problems to fake outside threats," says Park Young Ho, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification. Once the North dismantles its nuclear program and normalizes relations with others, he adds, it will have to open its closed system to the outside world. So long as Kim retains his grip on power, he seems likely to cling tight to the nuclear weapons that are destabilizing northeast Asia.

TIME TO DEAL | News