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North Korea: Pyongyang Reverses Course, Agrees To Six-Way Talks

North Korea, reversing its previous position, says it is ready for six-way negotiations with the United States, China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan on its nuclear program. But Pyongyang says it will refuse any dealings with U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton, who has been Washington's point man on North Korea. Bolton last week described North Korean leader Kim Jong Il as a "tyrannical dictator" and described life in the country as a "hellish nightmare."

Prague, 4 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Everything appears on track for six-way talks to start next month on North Korea's controversial nuclear program.

In a statement today, North Korea's Foreign Ministry said it expected negotiations to soon open in Beijing. In Seoul, Shin Eon-sang, a deputy minister at South Korea's Unification Ministry, confirmed that the first round of talks is expected to be held in Beijing in early September. North Korea, the United States, China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan are due to send representatives to the negotiations.

Does this apparent breakthrough signal a victory for Washington's hard-line diplomacy? The United States, after all, had for months pushed for multilateral talks despite Pyongyang's repeated refusal. What is more, North Korea has reconfirmed its acceptance of six-way negotiations, despite U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton's invective against the country's leader Kim Jong Il.

Speaking in Seoul last week, Bolton called Kim a "tyrannical dictator," prompting North Korea's Foreign Ministry to label Bolton "human scum" even as it emphasized its willingness to go ahead with talks -- minus Bolton.

Aidan Foster-Carter, a leading North Korea analyst based at Britain's Leeds University, told RFE/RL that on the one hand, Washington's dogged insistence on multilateral talks appears to have paid off. But he added that Pyongyang may now believe the format could serve its purposes better than Washington's.

"I think it probably vindicates holding out for multilateral diplomacy," Foster-Carter said. "But I wonder [if North Korea] may have listened to the arguments of people who say that actually, multilateral [talks] are probably quite good for them. Because rather than facing a single hard-line U.S., they'll be with all kinds of other people -- like Russia and China -- who, even if they're not exactly on [North Korea's] side anymore, will at least be urging the U.S. to 'go easy' and compensate for any nuclear surrender."

Foster-Carter said the multilateral format is a double-edged sword for the United States. While Russia and China will undoubtedly join the U.S. in pressing Pyongyang to give up its nuclear ambitions, they are also bound to press Washington to offer North Korea some concessions -- something Washington has expressly refused to do.

"You can have two different versions of five-against-one in this and I think we'll see both. In a sense, on the nuclear issue, it will be a kind of five-against-one -- in private, if not in public -- with everybody, including the Russians and the Chinese, saying to the North Koreans: 'Look, if you have got nukes, if you seriously plan to have nukes, that is a no-no. You absolutely have to not do that.' On the other hand, a different five-against-one, I think, will say to the U.S., 'Look, if we are to get the North Koreans to do anything about this, you have to compensate them.' So the line that the U.S. has been putting out up until now, that it will not compensate North Korea for bad behavior and things like that, really is a non-starter. A deal is a deal and no way are they going to surrender for nothing," Foster-Carter said.

Patrick Koellner, a Korea analyst at the University of Hamburg's Institute for Asian Affairs, notes that the upcoming negotiations pre-suppose Pyongyang's ultimate willingness to give up the nuclear weapons it may already have and those it appears to be in the process of building. But if North Korea has no such intention, then the multilateral format could ultimately bolster Washington's case for a marine blockade of North Korea combined with international sanctions.

"The positive thing about multilateral talks, of course, is that you have everyone on board, so that if anything goes wrong and if [you] can't find some good solution during these talks, then the ground is prepared for other kinds of measures against North Korea," Koellner said.

While that may be true, Sebastian Harnisch, a Korea expert at the University of Trier, Germany, cautions against seeing a blockade as a fix-all solution to stopping North Korea's trade in weapons technology. A negotiated agreement, he argues, will always be preferable, for the simple reason that a blockade could never be close to 100 percent effective.

"Of course, there are other options. There is the option of pressing North Korea by trying to intercept those illicit trades. On the other hand, to be honest, you can probably get 80 to 90 percent of the illicit trade but you won't be able to stop the nuclear trade or other trade on the land route through China. So this is a way to press North Korea but not to stop nuclear exports or any other exports to the Asian region, nor even to the Middle East or further," Harnisch said.

There is, of course, yet another option: war. In a joint editorial published today in "The Wall Street Journal Europe," former CIA Director James Woolsey and retired U.S. General Thomas McInerney make the case for going to war against Pyongyang if negotiations fail.

Woolsey and McInerney say that Washington, working in tandem with the South Korean military, has the air and naval power to destroy North Korea's suspected nuclear sites and defeat the North Korean regime within 30 to 60 days. The two men advise the administration of President George W. Bush to make the preparations to carry out such a plan.

There is, for now, no indication that anyone in the U.S. government is ready to espouse such a policy. But Aidan Foster-Carter believes the U.S. administration should urge its representatives to be more circumspect in their statements on North Korea and its leadership.

Foster-Carter said personalizing the conflict, as Bolton did in his public remarks last week, only serves to reinforce Pyongyang's perception that Washington will ultimately seek to go to war -- fueling North Korea's quest for a nuclear arsenal, and thus dooming any negotiations to failure.

"I think it has risks. Because although North Korea is obviously the problem in all of this and the rest of it is kind of strategy and tactics, the whole question of what message the North Koreans are hearing out of the United States is a very personal one. And if it's as personalized as this, particularly in East Asia, where as we know the culture of 'face' is even more important than elsewhere -- if you don't just say 'North Korea this and North Korea that...' but instead you say 'Kim Jong Il this and Kim Jong Il that' -- you really do personalize it. I mean, 'A' that's insulting and 'B' it rather suggests that you have a low opinion of this person and you might be contemplating regime change. So I think Washington has to think really hard. It has to focus now that these talks are going to happen, get itself a North Korea policy, and really start singing from a single hymn sheet, as they say," Foster-Carter said.

Experts say the makeup of the U.S. negotiating team should be a clue as to whether the "hawks," represented by men like Bolton -- although he himself will not attend the talks with Pyongyang -- or the "doves," represented by his boss, Secretary of State Colin Powell, have U.S. President George W. Bush's ear.