News analysis: On N.Korea, U.S. has doubts behind its smile

Posted in United States , Koreas | 02-Nov-06 | Author: Helene Cooper| Source: International Herald Tribune

Christopher R. Hill, a senior State Department diplomat, helped set up talks with North Korea and China.

Officially, the Bush administration is "pleased" - as President George W. Bush put it on Wednesday - that North Korea has agreed to resume talks on nuclear disarmament.

But behind closed doors at the White House and the State Department, some are less happy, saying the country's nuclear test should be answered with isolation.

When it comes to North Korea, the Bush administration has always found itself pulled in two directions - confrontation versus engagement - and has generally settled on a middle course that was neither. To persuade North Korea to return to the bargaining table, President Bush agreed last week to a slight softening of his stance against direct talks with North Korea, a concession that made clear that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was in charge of the policy, at least for now.

But Rice is coming under increased fire inside and outside the administration from officials and experts who are skeptical about what diplomacy can achieve in this case, and who argue that there is no chance a new round of nuclear talks with North Korea will succeed.

"What's a good description? Fantasy? Dreamworld?" said Nicholas Eberstadt, a North Korea expert with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "All we're doing with these hapless efforts at conference diplomacy is continuing to talk while North Korea continues to build nuclear weapons."

A senior Bush administration official was equally pointed in criticizing the new initiative. "In the past, the one thing we could never be criticized for was whether our tough talk meant something," said the official, who has participated in internal debates and would speak only on condition of anonymity about his dissenting views.

"When we gave a stick, they knew we were serious. We've lost that credibility."

This is not a new debate by any stretch. Within the administration, a more hawkish wing that includes Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and John R. Bolton, the ambassador to the United Nations, has chafed against talks with any American foe, be it North Korea or Iran. Meanwhile, advocates of diplomacy, including R.

Nicholas Burns and Philip D. Zelikow, two of Rice's top lieutenants at the State Department, have sided with European allies in saying that the United States should engage its foes.

But the fact that the debate has resurfaced with such vigor suggests that even North Korea's decision to test a nuclear device on Oct. 9 in defiance of U.S. warnings has not changed the old fault lines.

Rice has found herself in the middle of the tug-of-war as she seeks to mute international criticism of America's so-called cowboy diplomacy. On the two big nuclear proliferation issues, Iran and North Korea, Rice has helped to move the administration away from unilateralism, with President Bush offering in May to join European negotiations over Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Even after North Korea conducted a round of missile tests in July and four months later tested the nuclear device, the United States continued to call for it to return to six-nation talks toward North Korean disarmament.

"Pretty clearly, the president of the United States thinks we're doing the right thing," the State Department spokesman, Sean McCormack, said Wednesday. "This pathway is the best opportunity we have to achieve the objective we all share: a denuclearized Korean peninsula."

Rice argues that a new round of talks will be different and that the United States will wield more leverage because the negotiations will take place while North Korea is under U.N. sanctions for the nuclear test. But Kim Jong Il, the North Korean leader, has participated in multiple rounds of talks over the past several years while accelerating his pursuit of nuclear weapons.

North Korea boycotted the talks last year after the United States imposed financial penalties in September 2005 on Banco Delta Asia, a bank in Macau, accusing it of helping the North launder money and pass counterfeit $100 bills manufactured by the North Korean government.

For a year, North Korea refused to return to the talks, and the United States refused to lift the sanctions. The Bush administration balked at North Korean overtures for one-on-one talks, insisting that America would talk to North Korea only as part of the six-party negotiations. But last week, Chinese officials contacted the U.S.

Embassy in Beijing and proposed a three-way meeting involving the United States, North Korea and China. That step required a shift in the U.S. position against direct talks, but in response to a request from Rice, Bush agreed.

The chief U.S. negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, worked out the deal in a seven-hour session on Tuesday with his Chinese and North Korean counterparts. As a concession to entice North Korea back to the talks, the United States agreed to discuss the financial restrictions arising from the counterfeiting issue, a gesture that has been criticized inside and outside the administration.

There is "zero chance" that the talks will persuade North Korea to dismantle its nuclear program, said John Tkacik, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and a former State Department diplomat. "My Machiavellian mind tells me that the Chinese have worked out a deal with the Russians and the North Koreans that if North Korea comes back to the six-party talks, the main issue will not be denuclearization, it will be counterfeiting."

U.S. negotiators continue to maintain the financial restrictions will remain unless North Korea stops counterfeiting U.S. currency.

"They have to get out of the illicit-activities business and get out of the counterfeiting business," Hill said in an interview Tuesday.