Failure in the six-party talks was inevitable

The six-party talks have failed yet again, though the North Koreans have promised to study more generous U.S. proposals. Pyongyang has also promised to “improved its nuclear deterrent.” The deal-breaker was North Korea’s demand that U.S. financial restrictions be part of the negotiations on the North’s nuclear weapons. That was met by a stiff refusal by ...

The six-party talks have failed yet again, though the North Koreans have promised to study more generous U.S. proposals. Pyongyang has also promised to "improved its nuclear deterrent."

The deal-breaker was North Korea's demand that U.S. financial restrictions be part of the negotiations on the North's nuclear weapons. That was met by a stiff refusal by Christopher Hill, the chief negotiator for the United States. The Bush administration says the sanctions are tied to North Korea's criminal enterprises, not to its nuclear program.

Our sympathies are with Mr. Hill, sandwiched as he is between the unrealistic demands of the White House and the unstable negotiating tactics of Pyongyang.

The six-party talks have failed yet again, though the North Koreans have promised to study more generous U.S. proposals. Pyongyang has also promised to “improved its nuclear deterrent.”

The deal-breaker was North Korea’s demand that U.S. financial restrictions be part of the negotiations on the North’s nuclear weapons. That was met by a stiff refusal by Christopher Hill, the chief negotiator for the United States. The Bush administration says the sanctions are tied to North Korea’s criminal enterprises, not to its nuclear program.

Our sympathies are with Mr. Hill, sandwiched as he is between the unrealistic demands of the White House and the unstable negotiating tactics of Pyongyang.

First, Hill must deal with Mr. Bush’s North Korea policy: bluster and saber-rattling one day and pleading for a return to talks another. Until the North’s nuclear test in October, Washington had demanded a complete dismantling of the nuclear program as a pre-condition to talks. Having had to crawl back to the table (a pattern), the Bush administration maintains that the only solution it is willing to accept is complete dismantlement. But out of the nine countries that have ever acquired nuclear weapons, only South Africa has ever given them up—and that happened because apartheid regime collapsed. Every other country has done what the UK just decided a few weeks ago: Maintain and improve their nuclear stockpiles.

A more realistic goal than complete disarmament, says Brookings scholar Ivo H. Daalder, would be for North Korea to freeze and verify its existing program. This means: No more testing, a freeze on plutonium production, the return of international monitors, and the end of North Korea’s uranium enrichment program. As Daalder tartly observes, if the U.S. achieves these goals, we’d be back where we were under Clinton 12 years ago.

But the Bush administration’s negotiating foibles pale in comparison to the calculated unpredictability of the North Koreans. Mr Hill is the latest of a series of envoys to match wits with Mr. Kim Kye-gwan, who has been North Korea’s chief negotiator since the mid-1990s. As Tim Johnson explains, North Korea has honed erratic negotiating behavior to an art:

Make outlandish demands. Appear unyielding. Threaten to bolt at the slightest provocation…escalating a mood of crisis, demanding last-minute concessions and unilaterally reinterpreting past accords…”They basically demand everything but the kitchen sink, and they are not offering much in return so far,” Snyder said. “It helps to shape the field of negotiation to their advantage.”…”Nobody has ever effectively countered their negotiating style. That’s why we’re in the mess we’re in,” said Ralph A. Cossa, head of the Honolulu-based Pacific Forum of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a policy institute.”

Mr. Hill got a taste of this strategy when the North Koreans pulled one of their favorite tactics, arriving a day late. Much of this is for show. The North Koreans are loth to display any sign of weakness in public, but according to U.S. negotiators, in private sessions there is greater willingness to talk and sort things out. Yet, if last week is any indication, they aren’t very willing. For now, Mr. Hill faces an uphill battle to resolve East Asia’s biggest security challenge.

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