• U.S.

Back to Square One

5 minute read
J.F.O. Mcallister/Washington

North Korean diplomats have exasperated Americans since the Korean War, when the top U.S. armistice negotiator denounced them as “treacherous savages.” Last week U.S. diplomats felt much the same as the third round of talks in Geneva to halt Pyongyang’s nuclear-development program not only stalled but slid backward.

North Korea’s tough-guy bargaining and brazen attempts to retract concessions already given were so unyielding that the U.S. asked for a recess and recalled its negotiators to Washington for consultations. Was the impasse just aggressive brinkmanship by the hard men of Pyongyang or the end of the diplomatic opening begun in June during Jimmy Carter’s visit with North Korean strongman Kim Il Sung? The negotiators were not sure, but a State Department official was worried that “we’re on the brink of a serious breach.”

Those closest to the talks did all they could to downplay the possibility of a rift. “I am not prepared to say that we have made substantial progress,” said Ambassador Robert Gallucci, head of the U.S. delegation, but “the talks were serious and businesslike.” Both sides strained to say nothing critical of the other’s position. “It’s one of those moments where we try not to say anything at all,” said a U.S. official. Lower-level diplomats continued to meet over the weekend, and Gallucci will resume discussions Wednesday with North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kang Sok Ju.

Still, the optimism born of the last talks in August, when the U.S. thought + it had resolved several key disputes, has dissipated. Pyongyang had agreed to replace its suspect gas-graphite reactor at Yongbyon and two larger ones under construction with two light-water reactors that would generate far less plutonium that could be used in bombs. The U.S. had promised its allies would pay most of the $4 billion price tag.

In August Kang also agreed that work on the old-style reactors would stop as soon as Pyongyang received assurances that the new ones were on their way, while the West would provide other energy sources during the lengthy construction. But now he insists that the North will go on building the old reactors until those other sources of energy arrive in the country — and that the West should fork over $2 billion in cash to compensate Pyongyang for what it has already spent. Contrary to what he said in August, he now wants to select which country will supply the new reactors, mainly to exclude South Korea, the only country so far willing to pay for them.

The most serious backsliding involves the North’s willingness to accept special inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency at the two sites suspected of containing waste from past bomb-building efforts. Gallucci thought Kang had firmly committed the North to permit these inspections — crucial to confirming whether Pyongyang already has obtained plutonium to make bombs — before any components for the new reactors arrived. But this week Kang insisted the North would never permit special inspections, and would only start talking to the IAEA about its past nuclear program once the new reactors were more than 50% complete. Kang also said his government intended to keep the plutonium-rich fuel rods it removed from the Yongbyon reactor last May in North Korea instead of shipping them abroad.

In an ominous new threat, he said Pyongyang wanted to insert new fuel rods into the reactor now, so it can generate more plutonium. While there is no sign the North has actually started refueling, Gallucci told Kang any attempt to do so would end all talks.

Others who have negotiated with the North say its shifts of direction are nothing new. “They like to set the bar higher and higher,” said a Japanese diplomat, whose country engaged in eight rounds of talks to normalize relations with the North before they broke down. A Washington official adds, “It’s not unusual for them, having pocketed what you put on the table in the last round, to retract their concessions.”

The current impasse may also be dictated by uncertainty in Pyongyang. Donald Gregg, former U.S. ambassador to Seoul, suggests that Kim Jong Il “is asking for the world, because he has seen how highly we value his nuclear program.” Other experts speculate that Pyongyang’s intransigence reflects the growing strength of hard-liners, or that Kang is simply stalling until the succession to Kim Il Sung is settled. They note that the younger Kim has still not been formally named President or party chief. Jimmy Carter, who is pressing to return to Pyongyang to arrange a summit between North and South Korea, is holding off until Kim’s ascendancy is assured. That could come mid-month, at the end of a 100-day mourning period for his father.

Washington can afford to wait a few weeks. IAEA inspectors note that North Korea is finally taking better care of the fuel rods removed from the Yongbyon reactor; they can remain safely in their cooling ponds for several more months under present conditions and much longer if the water quality is improved. Bill Clinton has no interest in encouraging another big international crisis while American troops are deployed in Haiti. But the fear that Pyongyang is just buying time while it builds secret bombs weighs more heavily than ever on many minds in Washington. Clinton will need real results soon to prove that talking nicely with Pyongyang is a smart strategy.

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