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Catfish and Cod
Saturday, August 02, 2003
Who really blinked?
(Link path: USS Clueless, ABC News; Slate, Washington Post)

Steven Den Beste is running a in-depth positive-spin review of the newest word in North Korean relations. He's an eloquent writer, and you really should "read the whole thing". The upshot of the article is that North Korean negotiations -- indeed, all negotiations with Communist countries -- are based upon brinkmanship. According to Den Beste, North Korea has suddenly capitulated, supposedly under Chinese pressure. The American position of "engaged apathy" has triumphed, and if we just stay the course, North Korea will either make a true deal with the U.S., or be constrained by the Chinese.

Fred Kaplan thinks otherwise. His take on the news of the North Korean agreement includes a reluctant, divided Administration who made a major concession to the North Koreans in a rush of desperation. Kaplan cites a number of North Korean pronouncements favoring multilateral talks, as well as a Washington Post dispatch from Seoul, to bolster his thesis that the Administration only recently paid any real attention to the North Korean crisis at all.

Both gentlemen have an agenda at hand. Den Beste, as a libertarian neocon, believes in the deep planning and execution abilities of the Administration. Kaplan, as a member of the Watergate-bred punditocracy, has a vested interest in attacking the Administration. Both raise valid points and have hard data to bolster their conclusions. Who's right? Will the tru7h be revealed?

Den Beste's argument rests on the conclusion that North Korea has taken a sudden, abrupt about face:

I think the Chinese leadership has finally accepted that North Korea is the problem, and that it can only be solved if China helps apply pressure to NK...There's really no other way to explain why the stated policy of NK changed so radically in such a short time. A change from monumental pugnaciousness to a major concession in just one week could only really have happened if someone capable of applying intolerable pressure actually did so, and only the Chinese have that ability.

The problem with the thesis as stated, as Kaplan points out, is that North Korea didn't make a sudden, abrupt about face:

On June 10, a U.S. official, speaking on background, told Japanese reporters that North Korea might soon agree to participate in broader talks -- to include at least Japan and South Korea -- possibly in August. Since Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was in Tokyo on that day, it can be inferred that he or one of his aides was the source.

On July 8, North Korean diplomats held unofficial talks with their American counterparts at the United Nations. A week later, Chinese officials told the Tokyo daily Asahi Shimbun that the North Koreans had said at the meeting that they would agree to five-nation talks (Russia was not yet involved) if Washington guaranteed not to undermine the Pyongyang regime.

On July 12, Chinese and North Korean officials held informal talks on the subject, at the conclusion of which -- as CNN reported at the time -- Pyongyang once again agreed to multilateral talks.

On July 25, New Zealand's prime minister, Helen Clark, after meeting with South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun, said a round of multilateral talks would begin "as early as next month."

So, what's going on here? Why is North Korea's agreement being heralded today as a new development when, in fact, the shift occurred over three months ago�and was reported at the time by some of the same news agencies that are now calling it a breakthrough?

The statements given above can only be reconciled if additional communications, ones we're not privy to, caused some actor in this morality play to change their mind. One way to intepret the data is that, unlike the four previous announcements, the U.S. now had the Chinese assurances they previously lacked. (I expect Den Beste will interpret events this way.) Another theory, advanced by Kaplan, states that the North Koreans (or Chinese) now had the American assurances they previously lacked. In other words, neither North Korea nor China blinked -- we did.

The Post quotes a North Korean foreign ministry spokesman as saying Pyongyang agreed to multilateral negotiations after Washington gave assurances that the two sides could meet one-on-one, separately, during the talks. "Some time ago," the spokesman said, "the U.S. informed the DPRK through a third party that the DPRK-U.S. bilateral talks may be held within the framework of multilateral talks." (DPRK stands for Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the official name of North Korea.)

In other words, if this report is true, the Americans are coming to the talks after making at least as big a concession as the North Koreans. There will be a multilateral framework, but also -- shhhhh! -- some bilateral talks within that framework.

But is this really a concession? How common is this practice? People often hold bilateral talks in a multilateral setting. It's done all the time at the Group of Eight summits, for instance. And Kaplan himself points out that unofficial bilateral talks have occurred twice before already:

After all, during last April's trilateral talks in Beijing, the U.S. and North Korean delegations held separate one-on-one sessions. In fact, many understood those sessions to be de facto bilateral talks�although Bush was unwilling to label them as such�with China serving as host, intermediary, and diplomatic cover.

So how is it that bilateral talks are a diplomatic concession, if we've already conducted them before? Note also that the North Koreans are emphasizing the bilateral talks, hinting that the real discussions will be held there, and that they have thus won an American concession. This statement is as self-serving as the Administration-spun stories that Kaplan is attempting to skewer.

Kaplan, it should be pointed out, believes that the trilateral talks in China were unoffcially bilateral, and the Chinese presence was superfluous. Den Beste doesn't know about (or doesn't believe in) the unofficial bilateral talks, and believes Chinese involvement was critical.

In the Orient, diplomacy is considered to be "war by other means", and vice versa. If that's true, then a "fog of war" has descended upon US-North Korea relations. Both sides believe they are winning, and it's far from clear who really has the upper hand. The only firm conclusion we can draw is that talks will occur in September, with all concerned parties in active participation. That has to be good news, considering that everyone involved has essentially hid from the issues for fifty years.

Finally, a word from the soapbox: Personally, I believe North Korea can't be trusted. They entered into the 1994 Agreed Framework fully intending to break it, and I believe they will break future agreements if they can. Only active involvement and close monitoring by the threatened countries, especially China, can force North Korean compliance. Even so, a North Korean-U.S. agreement will only stabilize, not fix, the situation. In the long run, North Korea will collapse, and either China or South Korea will have to incorporate and rehabilitate it. (I would favor South Korea; for starters, they would want to.) The real issues are, one, to minimize the danger to neighbors when the DPRK time bomb finally blows, and two, to arrange the mechanisms for future North Korean administration. Hopefully, in places the North Koreans can't hear them, the Eastern powers will discuss the future as well as the present.

UPDATE: Welcome to visitors from USS Clueless, and thanks to Den Beste for linking! Feel free to take a look around, ya'll...

UPDATE TWO: Incestuous Amplification has more in-depth coverage. I comment on it above.