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No one involved in the six-party talks, diplomats from all sides insist, downplays the problems Kim poses to his neighbors and enemies alike. "The bottom line [for] everyone," says one official, "is to get rid of the [North's] nuclear weapons program." But that consensus masks significant disagreements between the negotiating partners on how to achieve that aim. Says a diplomatic source close to the talks: "The essential issue is, everybody says nuclear weapons are unacceptable on the Korean peninsula, but we don't have a common definition of what 'unacceptable' means."
The difficulties, in essence, revolve around whether to bribe Kim with money and other assistance (a tactic that has been used often in the past without producing lasting peace, because Kim, like other crooked politicians, won't stay bought) or to starve him until he gives in—or his government collapses. At his meeting in Beijing last week, Hill insisted to his Chinese hosts that under no circumstances would the U.S. offer concessions simply to get the North back to the bargaining table. "If you start giving concessions because people walk out," Hill told TIME, "it'll just invite them to use that tactic in the future." But it's unclear whether Beijing, or Seoul for that matter, agrees. Wang, China's lead negotiator, may have wanted to take an inducement with him to Pyongyang to entice North Korea back to the talks.
Indeed, China and South Korea, which border the North, continue to proclaim that the only realistic option in this long-running carrots-versus-sticks debate is to buy Kim's good behavior, even if it means upping the ante. At his first news conference since being appointed South Korea's ambassador to Washington, Hong Seok Hyun last week said "a top-notch horse tamer can handle horses only with sugar cubes. Horses like them more than carrots." The cryptic rhetoric dismayed some Bush Administration officials, who don't understand why Kim would give up his nuclear weapons while his neighbors continue to supply him with vital trade and charity. How vital? Although no one knows precisely how much food, fuel and other aid China provides to Pyongyang, Oh Jin Yong, a China expert at Seoul's POSCO Research Institute, estimates that the mainland sends about 1 million tons of crude oil and another 150,000-200,000 tons of refined products to the North every year. That's fully one-third of Pyongyang's current oil demand. The energy aid is a big chunk of about $500 million to $1 billion in overall assistance that China forks out to the North every year, Oh says.
Although the relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang was forged in blood half a century ago—China suffered a million casualties fighting on the North's side in the Korean War—the economic lifeline today is one of cool self-interest on China's part. For all the hype about China's economic growth, the northeast area of the country bordering North Korea is an industrial rust belt where unemployment is the government's core concern. The absolute last thing Beijing wants is a flood of economic refugees fleeing chaos in North Korea. Fear of instability is virtually built into the Chinese leadership's genetic code—think of its response to the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989—and the government will do almost anything to forestall it. "Beijing's worst-case scenario," says Tsinghua University political scientist Chu Shulong, "is that North Korea not only collapses, but collapses in chaos."
Substitute "Seoul" for "Beijing" in that sentence, and the same is true. According to public-opinion surveys, most South Koreans profess not to fear the North's nuclear arms because they think the weapons would be aimed either at Japan, Korea's historical nemesis and former occupier, or the U.S. Sanctions, on the other hand, pose immediate economic peril. A recent Standard & Poor's report said the collapse of North Korea could cost Seoul anywhere from 40% to 300% of its annual GDP—or up to $2 trillion.