After each of the three previous six-party meetings, which began in 2003, North Korea has left the talks complaining about Washington's insincerity and hostility. Pyongyang says there's no point continuing the meetings until that animosity is renounced or toned down. A more practical reason for not resuming talks was that the North Koreans were taking a wait-and-see attitude pending the outcome of the U.S. presidential elections. Now that Bush is back for a second term, there's every reason for the North to resume the talks, if only to receive the gifts that China, the ever-gracious host country, is sure to give them.
But the two main protagonists still seem as far apart as ever. North Korea says the ball is in America's court and that it's high time Washington recognized the justness of North Korea's "words for words and action for action" proposal. According to this formula, North Korea will resume its freeze on its nuclear weapons program when the U.S. resumes its rewards of energy supplies, lifts the economic embargo, and removes the North from Washington's list of terrorist-sponsoring states. The U.S. has been down that road before with the 1994 Agreed Framework, which it claims North Korea violated. Washington's position is that North Korea must first take concrete steps to halt its nuclear program before it receives any rewards.
To get North Korea back into the six-party talks, two conditions must be satisfied. First, the Bush Administration must stop insulting and overtly threatening Kim Jong Il by talking about "regime change" or "regime transformation." That condition may have been satisfied, at least for the moment, by the moderate tone of the State of the Union address. Second, as in the past, China must offer a suitable financial inducement to Pyongyang to come to Beijing.
In dealing with a recalcitrant North Korea, the Bush Administration might learn something from John F. Kennedy who, as a young President facing the formidable Soviet threat, said: "Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate." In its morbid fear of whatever nuclear arsenal North Korea may possess, the Bush Administration has been overly cautious about negotiating with North Korea, which, not unreasonably, is petrified of U.S. intentions and military strength following the Iraq war. With the greater fear in Pyongyang, the U.S. should refrain from issuing statements that only startle Kim, meanwhile putting aside its reluctance to sit down with the enemy.
Once the talks resume, progress can be made only if the U.S. relaxes its posture and begins to view North Korea not as a grave threat to world peace, but as what it truly is: an impoverished, paranoid, deeply misguided dictatorship. Interestingly, accepting North Korea as an established nuclear power may not be a bad idea in that it will give the country some self-respect. As for agreement on the tough issue of a nuclear inspection regime, that must await improvement in Washington-Pyongyang relations. But so long as North Korea does not precipitate a crisis by selling or transferring plutonium or nuclear weapons, there will be plenty of time for relationship building. A journey starts with a single step, and if Bush means what he says about settling the nuclear issue through negotiation, Washington's emissaries should put on a smile and take the next small step.