Deal unlikely at North Korea nuclear talks

Times Staff Writer

North Korea has seen it all before: A U.S. administration looking for a foreign policy success in its waning days sets its gaze on Pyongyang in hopes of bolstering the president’s legacy.

As negotiations aimed at halting North Korea’s nuclear program reopen in Beijing today after a nine-month hiatus, a central question is whether the communist regime will play ball with the Bush administration or punt until the next president enters the Oval Office in January.

Odds are it will punt.

To begin with, delay, backtracking and an insistence on immediate payoffs tend to be a cornerstone of North Korea’s negotiating strategy, analysts said. “Don’t expect smooth sailing,” said Joseph Cheng, professor at the City University of Hong Kong.


In addition, the items topping North Korea’s wish list, which includes more aid and greater diplomatic recognition, probably are not President Bush’s to deliver.

The administration already faces criticism from conservatives that it has given too much away for too little in return, analysts said, which makes more concessions unlikely. Washington agreed to remove North Korea from its list of states sponsoring terrorists and to ease trading restrictions in exchange for the regime’s moves last month to blow up the cooling tower for its main nuclear reactor and provide a supposedly complete list of its nuclear activities.

The chance of the regime extracting more from its negotiating partners -- China, Japan, Russia, the U.S. and South Korea -- is further narrowed by their respective political weakness.

Bush has only six months left in his term. Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda’s approval rating has dropped by half in opinion polls since he took office in September. And South Korean President Lee Myung-bak is on the political ropes amid criticism that he was too accommodating to the U.S. over beef imports. Furthermore, from North Korea’s perspective, Lee needs to be “taught a lesson” for straying from the accommodating “sunshine policies” of his predecessors.

North Korea is also in a position to make some small concessions without threatening its position.

Many analysts and government officials are skeptical that North Korea’s list of nuclear activities is comprehensive.

“There’s nobody in the world who trusts that North Korea will provide information on all its nuclear materials,” said Shi Yinhong, professor at People’s University in Beijing.

But this gives the regime an opportunity to fill in at least a few of the blanks, elaborating on the state of its uranium enrichment activities, whether it has other plutonium programs and what proliferation deals it has cut with Syria and Pakistan. Providing that information would allow Pyongyang to appear marginally cooperative and buy more time.

“It shouldn’t be difficult for North Korea to deliver something,” said Cheng, of the City University.

Analysts said they expected limited progress in the next few days. The Bush administration is being very optimistic if it thinks it can cut a significant deal in its final six months, they said, unless it is willing to make huge concessions.

In October 2000, then-President Clinton sent Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright to Pyongyang in hope of a breakthrough. It was even rumored that the president might travel to North Korea. But time ran out, and the initiative failed.

“The past indicates North Korea is willing to move forward so long as it gets paid,” said Ren Xiao, a professor at Fudan University in Shanghai.

Ahead lies the third so-called verification phase.

“There are a lot of details that need to be fleshed out,” Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill said in Beijing on the eve of the talks.

During this phase, foreign experts, including those with the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, will try to match Pyongyang’s declaration with reality through site inspections, interviews and a review of documents. This is expected to be a struggle, given how highly Pyongyang values its secrecy.

“There is no way North Korea will let the IAEA thoroughly inspect and verify,” Shi said. “They want to keep their basic nuclear weapons, even as they compromise in some areas, in order to stay in power, achieve international acceptance and increase their legitimacy with their own army and people.”