Still, there was determined optimism among Western diplomats that a glimmer of something useful had been accomplished: by sitting down with neighbors, enemies and erstwhile allies—all insistent that North Korea renounce its nuclear weapons-development program—the North's authoritarian leadership received the clearest message yet of how isolated it has become. Moreover, U.S. officials hope the North's latest displays of intractability will finally convince its only friends, Russia and China, to express their impatience with the regime's bluster and brinkmanship.
China's sway with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il could prove to be key in coaxing him back to the bargaining table. The country is the North's largest benefactor and trading partner, supplying up to two-thirds of its energy needs and nearly 40% of its food imports. Earlier this summer, Beijing showed its leverage by convincing Pyongyang to accept multilateral talks instead of the one-on-one negotiations with the U.S. that the North demanded. In July, China delivered a personal letter to Kim from President Hu Jintao warning him to halt his nuclear program. And on Aug. 20, Beijing quietly sent a senior army general, Xu Caihou, to Pyongyang "to deliver a very strong message that the talks are not an opportunity to waste," says Zhu.
Despite admonitions to behave, North Korea lobbed a cherry bomb on the very first day of negotiations. According to an American diplomat who participated in the sessions, North Korea's representative at the talks, Vice Foreign Minister Kim Yong Il, privately told the U.S.'s top negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, that the circumstances left the North "no choice" but to declare itself a nuclear power—and to prove the claim by conducting a nuclear test. Alarming as this sounds, it's standard operating procedure for North Korea, which has calculatedly tried to frighten the international community into appeasing it with aid. But the tactic may have backfired. When six-way talks resumed the next day, Kelly recounted to his startled tablemates what he'd been told. As China's envoy, Vice Foreign Minister Wang Yi, grew visibly ruffled, Kim was obliged to repeat his threats. China, Russia, South Korea and Japan "heard what was said and saw how this business is handled" by the North, says the American diplomat. As a result, the remaining rivulets of goodwill that Pyongyang had at the bargaining table looked ready to evaporate. The U.S. was "pleased with the outcome," says the diplomat, although it was "by no means triumphal."
Indeed, triumph will come for the U.S. only if Kim Jong Il gives up his nuclear ambitions. Despite North Korea's stated disgust with the proceedings, some observers still expect a new round of talks later this year. It's hard to be sanguine, though, given the North's record of incendiary rhetoric and broken promises. "The North Koreans have run this particular film on too many Saturday nights," says a Western diplomat. "Now they have got to give something very seriously up front."