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January 18, 2007
Bilateral Talks With North Korea?

The US and North Korea have quietly conducted one-on-one talks in advance of the next six-nation meeting on Kim Jong-Il's nuclear-weapons program. The pre-meeting seems to reverse the Bush administration's position against bilateral negotiations on the issue, but the White House insists that the meetings are intended to just lay the groundwork for the wider forum:

Seeking to revive stalled negotiations to end North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, the United States held “substantive” talks with North Korean diplomats here on Tuesday and Wednesday, said the chief American envoy, Christopher R. Hill.

The unusual one-on-one sessions, the first to be held outside Beijing during the Bush administration, were signs of progress since negotiations broke off in December after North Korea demanded that Washington lift financial sanctions against it.

“It was a substantive discussion,” Mr. Hill said in an interview on Wednesday, though he refused to give details. “The proof of the pudding will be when we all sit down together in the six-party negotiations.”

Mr. Hill briefed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on his meetings upon her arrival in Germany after a mission through the Middle East and Persian Gulf. Ms. Rice said later that Mr. Hill’s discussions “should help to prepare the way for a more favorable atmosphere at the time of the resumption of the six-party talks, which we would hope would be soon.”

The US has resisted the calls for bilateral talks with the Kim regime, preferring to use the leverage provided by China as Kim's ally to pressure Kim into concessions. This has led the Bush administration to avoid even the lower-level contacts, although they have occasionally occurred depending on circumstances, usually to resolve one particular point.

This seems different; Hill and Kim Kye-gwan apparently met on the broad spectrum of issues involved in the impasse, according to Hill's comments afterwards. He mentioned that the normalization of the relationship between Pyongyang and Washington would have to develop "bilaterally" and over a long period of time. He also hinted that the US might loosen its sanctions on Kim's financial network, especially the bank in Macao through which he funnelled his counterfeit American currency, a key demand from North Korea for their continued participation in the six-nation talks.

Both Hill and Condoleezza Rice were quick to respond to questions about the apparent change of policy. Both said that the lower-level bilateral meeting was intended to find areas of agreement on which to build at the upcoming multilateral forum. They emphasized that they expected to return to those talks in the next few weeks and that any agreements would be made there, and not in these impromptu talks in Berlin.

Perhaps so. It appears, though, that the Bush administration has tried to use more flexibility in its approach to Kim Jong-Il, and that may well work. If it results in verifiable dismantling of the North Korean nuclear program and an end to the kind of provocations we saw last year, we will cheer this flexibility. However, we've been down that road before, and regardless of the venue, the Bush administration has to remain firm on verification -- and it's difficult to see how that will work without the looming presence of China to force compliance.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at January 18, 2007 5:32 AM

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