WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Negotiating with North Korea has never been easy, pleasant or even particularly productive, but a series of hostile actions by Pyongyang and evidence it is advancing its nuclear weapons program seems to have driven home to Washington that not talking to the North can be even worse.
The U.S. envoy for North Korea policy said on Tuesday he hoped serious negotiations over Pyongyang’s nuclear programs could start soon after a two-year stalemate.
Ambassador Stephen Bosworth’s comments in Seoul followed New Year remarks by both North and South Korea that suggested a willingness to talk. Japan said it also wants to discuss the nuclear problem and other bilateral issues with the North.
Any U.S. move toward diplomacy — after 2010 saw the sinking of a South Korean ship killing 46 sailors, a deadly artillery attack on a southern island, and new North Korean nuclear revelations — raises the specter of yet another unearned concession to Pyongyang.
But an Obama administration official took pains to differentiate between efforts to ease inter-Korean tensions and the six-party nuclear talks involving the United States, the two Koreas, China, Japan and Russia.
“The six-party talks were specifically created to deal with the nuclear question and the North Koreans know that,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“That’s why we wanted to make it very clear that they were not being rewarded with a return to talks because of their attack against Yeonpyeong island,” he added, referring to the island where four South Koreans were killed in November.
Experts say Washington and its allies can pursue their interests through dialogue outside of the complicated six-nation talks format.
North Korea has tested nuclear weapons twice since the six-party denuclearization agreement of September 2005, and last year it revealed it had made significant progress in enriching uranium to give it a second way to make bombs.
“Nothing can be solved or resolved, nor can tensions be reduced, without dialogue with the North Koreans,” said Charles “Jack” Pritchard, a former U.S. negotiator with North Korea who now heads the Korea Economic Institute in Washington.
“The North Koreans have no intention of giving up their nuclear weapons programs any time soon, so you have to accept the six-party talks for what it is: another channel of communication with the North Koreans,” he said.
The Obama administration’s logic in opening talks without the precondition of a North Korean commitment to disarm as Washington had previously demanded reflects a desire to mitigate the threat posed by the North’s nuclear capabilities even if it cannot eliminate them, said a congressional aide.
“We’re not going to negotiate an end state that leaves North Korea as a nuclear power — no U.S. president is going to negotiate that,” said the aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“Mitigation in the short to medium term and elimination over the longer term: That’s a reasonable objective of negotiations,” added the aide.
North Korean provocations in 2010, and China’s effective protection of Pyongyang from serious consequences, left Washington, Seoul and Tokyo more closely aligned in policy than ever before and this can make it easier to approach Pyongyang.
“All indications are that the United States, South Korea and Japan are clearly on the same page on North Korea,” said Bruce Klingner, a Korea expert at the Heritage Foundation.
“All of them hope for a diplomatic solution to the North Korean nuclear problem, but there is little optimism that there will be that result, so there will be a continued prioritization of pressure over unconditional diplomatic outreach,” he predicted.
The United States, which will host Chinese President Hu Jintao for a key state visit in late January, needs to keep a “reasonable amount of pressure” on the Chinese to ensure that Beijing is enforcing United Nations sanctions imposed to stop nuclear proliferation by North Korea, said Pritchard.
China’s fears of chaos on its border from a North Korean collapse under U.S. pressure are as great as the nuclear worries of the United States and its allies. Beijing believes that North Korea behaves better with negotiations going on.
“They (the Chinese) are leery of being lured into a process that isolates and sanctions the North and offers no diplomatic solution,” said the congressional aide.
“If they going to expend their leverage ... it’s going to be to try to catalyze a deal and, for there to be a deal, we have to be engaged in negotiations,” the aide added.
Additional reporting by Caren Bohan and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Eric Beech