Time to Deal; It's Round Four in the Six-Party Talks. Is Kim Jong Il Willing to Put His Nukes on the Bargaining Table?

Article excerpt

Byline: B. J. Lee and Hideko Takayama (With R.M. Schneiderman in New York)

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. …