Analysis: Should U.S. Talk to N. Korea?

The Associated Press
Tuesday, October 10, 2006; 8:08 PM

WASHINGTON -- North Korea's apparent nuclear weapons test may bear out the warnings of Bush administration hard-liners that the reclusive regime can never be trusted, but it also forces an examination of whether the silent treatment those same hard-liners have given North Korea for years has backfired.

Convinced that the Clinton administration got conned when it offered carrots to the North Koreans, the Bush administration has offered mostly sticks. The White House has firmly withheld the biggest carrot of all _ direct, one-on-one talks between Washington and Pyongyang.

The United States is the power North Korea most fears and is the foil for the propaganda that helps keep the communist regime afloat. The North says it needs nuclear weapons, and missiles to deliver them, to counter U.S. aggression.

The United States is also the nation the North would most like to talk to, for both the prestige that direct talks could bring the regime and the security promises the talks might produce.

One interpretation of this week's test holds that it is North Korea's latest and most alarming attempt to get Washington's attention.

But the United States has insisted on talking to North Korea only with four other nations at the table, including China and South Korea, the two countries that Pyongyang relies on most for its economic survival. That, the U.S. argues, makes it harder for the North to walk away from negotiations.

"The United States tried direct dialogue with the North Koreans in the '90s, and that resulted in the North Koreans signing onto agreements that they then didn't keep," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said during an interview Tuesday on CNN.

The White House contends that North Korea wants to set up a confrontation with the United States and direct talks would play to that hand. By insisting on talks only in the awkward company of four other nations, the argument goes, the United States deprives the North of the chance to play David to the U.S. Goliath. Instead, the North also has South Korea, Japan, China and Russia to answer to.

"The North Koreans would like to make this about the United States, and I prefer that the Chinese and the South Koreans and the Japanese are saying the same thing to the North Koreans today that we are saying," said Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, Rice's top negotiator for North Korea.

The six-nation talks have been stalled for more than a year, but Hill and other U.S. officials refuse to declare them dead.

For now, U.S. officials are pushing for tough sanctions at the U.N. Security Council, and the United States hasn't ruled out taking other steps on its own, such as intercepting ships entering or leaving North Korean ports.

Contrast that with the situation six years ago, when then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright became the first ranking U.S. official to meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il. Albright even gave a delighted Kim a basketball autographed by Michael Jordan.

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