October 07, 2009 12:18
North Korean leader Kim Jong-il told visiting Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on Monday that his country is willing to attend multilateral talks, including the six-party talks, depending on the progress in its talks with the United States. It was a shift from the vow never to return to the six-party talks which the North made in protest against UN sanctions following its second nuclear test.
But Kim's comments contain strategic pitfalls and ambiguities that are trademarks of the Stalinist country's diplomatic style.
A prime example is the caveat that the North's return to six-party talks depends on progress in bilateral talks with Washington, which seems to imply it wants rewards first. But the U.S. government wants to avoid promising rewards or discussing the specifics of North Korea's nuclear program during the meeting. That would make it difficult for North Korea to walk away with rewards, and the six-party talks could once again be postponed indefinitely. That Kim spoke of multilateral talks, including the six-party talks shows that Pyongyang could opt for talks with the U.S. and China only, instead of the six-party framework.
In the end, Wen's visit yielded no solid promise. Yet in return, China has agreed to provide massive assistance to North Korea. In doing so, it is repeating the mistake of the past of rewarding North Korea before it has done anything, especially when UN sanctions are still in effect. This approach weakens international pressure on North Korea and the negotiating powers of the countries in the six-party talks.
Kim repeated that denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula was the "last wish" of former leader Kim Il-sung and that Pyongyang would continue to achieve that wish. But North Korea has used that line in the past, only to shift back to supporting its nuclear weapons program citing "hostile" policies by South Korea and the U.S. Even if talks resume, this attitude shows that Pyongyang can quit again at any time, to say nothing of the trouble it can make during talks.
In bilateral talks between North Korea and the U.S., Washington could give Pyongyang a hint of the contents of the "comprehensive package" the allies are promising, but specific details should be left for the six-party talks. U.S.-North Korea talks must be kept as brief as possible.
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