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North Korea: Signs Of Progress In The Standoff?

North Korea's weekend announcement that it might agree to multilateral talks about its suspected nuclear program elicited a flurry of positive reaction, including welcoming words from U.S. President George W. Bush. To what extent can Pyongyang's announcement be seen as a sign of progress? And was it prompted by the United States' military success in Iraq -- another country on Washington's "axis of evil?

Prague, 15 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. success on the battlefield in Iraq appears to be having an impact thousands of kilometers away, in North Korea -- another country Washington has included on its "axis of evil."

After months of demands for bilateral negotiations with the United States, Pyongyang appeared to backtrack on 12 April, issuing a statement saying it might agree to multilateral talks -- as Washington favors -- if the United States made a "bold switchover" in its policy towards North Korea.

Just what this "bold switchover" would constitute was not made clear. But U.S. President George W. Bush and others seized on the statement as a positive sign: "We are making good progress in North Korea. We have made it clear that we think that the best way to deal with their proliferation [of weapons of mass destruction] is through a multinational forum. It looks like that might be coming to fruition. That's very good news for the people in the Far East."

North Korea's mildly conciliatory statement came just a day after Bush declared Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to be out of power and warned Syria not to offer sanctuary to any fleeing Iraqi officials. Patrick Koellner, an expert on Korea at the University of Hamburg's Institute for Asian Affairs, says the timing is no coincidence.

The Iraqi regime's experience of being put on Washington's "axis of evil" and then destroyed militarily by U.S. forces has undoubtedly had a chilling effect on North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il and he is now reacting. The problem is, no one can interpret Kim's motives with certainty. Koellner: "There are two lessons that could be drawn from the Iraqi campaign. The first lesson would be that you have to develop nuclear weapons fast, in order to enhance your deterrent abilities. The other would be: you better negotiate fast with the Americans in order to avoid a military strike."

Aidan Foster-Carter is a Korea analyst at Britain's Leeds University. He says an examination of the North Korean government's statements and actions over the past few months indicates Pyongyang may actually be more likely to wager on developing nuclear weapons for its protection. In which case, he says, the 12 April announcement would simply be a stalling tactic: "What I'm concerned about is this -- they commented earlier on Iraq as follows: that Iraq's miserable fate proves that you don't let inspectors in and you don't let them disarm you. Because after all, if you were North Korea, how would you read what's happened in Iraq? Iraq makes concessions, it has inspectors crawling all over the place -- in a way that is unimaginable in North Korea -- and then the Americans invade anyway. So my fear is that Kim Jong-Il may have decided that he really does want nuclear weapons. And so the old debate that we've long had as to why they want them: do they want them as a deterrent or do they want them so they can gain a high price when they finally give them up? We'll see, but my worry is that he may have shifted towards the former. It would, in a way, be rational."

Surprisingly little is known about the extent of North Korea's alleged nuclear program. What is clear is that tensions on the peninsula have been steadily rising in the past six months. Last October, the United States said Pyongyang had admitted to processing enriched uranium with the aim of producing nuclear weapons, in violation of a 1994 agreement. And the CIA said it believed Pyongyang already possessed one or two nuclear bombs.

North Korea has never publicly confirmed this but neither has it renounced the option to manufacture nuclear arms. Pyongyang further raised international suspicions when it announced it was restarting a separate, previously mothballed civilian nuclear-power program, whose main component is a plutonium reactor that could also be used in manufacturing weapons. North Korea unilaterally withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in January.

Foster-Carter says Pyongyang's latest statement fits into a pattern of rhetorical escalation and sudden conciliation that the regime has long used to prod its adversaries into negotiations: "There is a long history of Korean negotiation and nonnegotiation and a pattern of going to the brink and even what others might regard as beyond the brink -- a ratcheting up of tension and then seeming to soften and say: 'Well, maybe we can do this or that.' I mean, it's quite a pattern."

But Korea experts say despite uncertainty about Pyongyang's motives, if North Korea appears to be softening its stance on negotiations, it should be engaged. From a strategic standpoint, U.S. military intervention to unseat the regime is a near impossibility, due to the catastrophic damage Pyongyang could inflict on Seoul in the first hours of a war. And as Koellner notes, there are at least two concessions that North Korea is seeking from the United States that do not involve direct aid, which could be negotiated without Washington giving up a major strategic advantage.

"I think it's two things: one is that the United States would be willing to give some kind of security guarantee for the North Koreans," Koellner said. "And the other, which seems somewhat technical but is of the utmost importance for North Korea, is that North Korea would be deleted from the State Department's list of countries supporting international terrorism. If it's deleted from that list, then there is basically no reason for the United States to block North Korea's entry into international organizations such as the World Bank and so on. And of course, these kinds of organizations could play an important role in terms of supplying economic and other aid to North Korea."

To those who say that reopening negotiations with North Korea would only be rewarding blackmail, both Koellner and Foster-Carter argue that the Bush administration bears at least some of the responsibility for the collapse of the 1994 agreement, under which Pyongyang agreed to halt its nuclear operations in exchange for oil shipments and the building of two light-water energy reactors. The Bush administration's strong criticism of the agreement when they took office as well as foot-dragging on the construction of those reactors may have encouraged the North Koreans to write off the deal as dead, starting a new escalation in tensions.

Recent indications that both Russia and China may be toughening their stance on Pyongyang -- Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Losyukov said last week that the appearance of nuclear weapons in North Korea would be "categorically" against Moscow's national interests -- may help the United States extract concessions from Pyongyang in any future negotiations.