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The North Korea Nuke Talks

Reporters in Washington are told by State Department spokesman Sean McCormack the ongoing talks in Beijing over North Korea's nuclear program are "continuing in a good atmosphere" and that the diplomats are "putting pen to paper."

We are also told American and North Korean negotiators have met at least four separate times this week, outside the main multilateral forum, and that the talks are continuing into the weekend.

All this is good news, even as it is understood by everyone that if any real progress is made, it will be "inch by inch," says the Bush administration's chief negotiator, Ambassador Christopher Hill.

For the past ten years the favorite word all American officials have used to describe their dealings with North Korea is "opaque." For any country's leadership to be "hard to understand or explain," as the dictionary defines the word, is not a good thing for diplomats, whose job it is to understand and explain foreign governments as they formulate policy.

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It is especially troublesome when the country in question has nuclear weapons or the capability to make them, which, as best the U.S. can judge, is the case with North Korea.

Thus, the resumption for a fourth round of the so-called six-party talks this week was welcome news, if only because it had the promise of getting things moving again. North Korea's negotiating team last sat with counterparts from the U.S., South Korea, Japan, China and Russia more than a year ago. The Americans put forth a proposal at the June 2004 meeting aimed at getting North Korea to "completely, verifiably and irreversibly" dismantle its nuclear program in exchange for much needed economic help and security guarantees.

Another meeting was scheduled for September, but it never took place because Pyongyang was a no-show. Maybe the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, was waiting for America's election results in November to see if there would be a change in Washington's policy. Or perhaps he was just being opaque. Whatever the reasoning, there was very little movement by the time Condoleezza Rice became secretary of state and for the next few months.

Rice named Hill, a former envoy to Warsaw and Seoul, as her new point man for the North Korea talks. Hill, who also has experience in the Balkans, is credited with being a tough negotiator. There is a lot of verbal jousting in Washington about whether or not Hill has a more flexible mandate than did his predecessor, but Rice downplayed the one on one meetings in an interview with The NewsHour on PBS: "…we have always talked to the North Koreans within the context of the six-party talks, one-on-one if necessary…"

Technically, Rice is correct, but the Bush administration has certainly never had as many bi-lateral meetings with Pyongyang's negotiators nor for such long periods as have taken place this week.

Clearly, the administration has altered its tactics if not its goal of ending North Korea's nuclear programs.

Wendy Sherman, who negotiated with the North Koreans for former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, says the bi-lateral talks are "an important first step and absolutely essential, if not sufficient, to making any progress." Viewing the current round of talks from Washington, Sherman added, "it appears people — everyone — is trying to appear more flexible."

In her PBS interview, Rice again put down the marker for what the administration wants done: "So all that the North obviously needs to do is demonstrate that it is ready to live up to those obligations to dismantle, verifiably, their nuclear programs ... It is about a denuclearized Korean Peninsula, but the problem, the obstacle to a denuclearized Korean Peninsula is the North Korean nuclear program."

Just as forcefully, Rice voices the concern that has driven the Bush administration's mistrust of Kim Jong Il's regime from day one: "Because what we are not prepared to do is to let North Korea go back to the early '90s when we had a bilateral arrangement with them, which they then broke out of practically before the ink was dry."

For now, spokesman McCormack says the goal of this round is to se if the parties can agree on a statement of principles to use as a basis to continue talks. That would indeed be a big step.

However this round plays out, former negotiator Wendy Sherman voices what Rice, Hill and others who have dealt with North Korea know: "there's a long and difficult slog ahead."

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