The US diplomat who helped the Chinese to persuade the North Koreans to return to the negotiations over Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions had it exactly right when he said: "I have not broken out the cigars and champagne quite yet."
The skepticism of Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Christopher Hill was quoted in the New York Times as he announced the resumption of what are known as the six-party talks. They include China, North Korea, the US, South Korea, Japan and Russia.
While Hill didn't say so, he seemed to have in mind North Korea's trail of obstruction, deception and bad-faith tactics. Perhaps he even doubted that, in the end, the North Koreans would come to Beijing this month or next to negotiate as promised.
North Korea's reluctance showed up in small clues. In Beijing, the US and China announced North Korea's decision; North Korea, meanwhile, remained silent. The next day, the official North Korean Central News Agency carried only a short item saying: "The DPRK decided to return to the six-party talks on the premise that the issue of lifting financial sanctions" will be settled.
In the same edition, KCNA let loose several blasts at the US, one of which claimed that "The present development clearly testifies to the justice of the decision made by the DPRK to have access to nuclear weapons."
Speculation about why North Korean leader Kim Jong-il suddenly agreed to resume the talks after a year of refusal ranged widely.
Most likely, the North Koreans sought to buy time to work on their nuclear weapons as the test detonation earlier this month may have shown a flaw.
"The North Korean political leadership was faced with the problem of being unable [despite its high-pitched rhetoric] to conduct another test for some time until that technical issue was resolved," a Korean watcher said.
Kim may also have sought to get the Chinese off his back as they had cut off his oil to force him to return to the talks. Beijing had taken the initiative in arranging the negotiations and had lost face when North Korea was defiant.
It is possible that Kim thinks he is in a better bargaining position now, that the sanctions imposed by the UN had hurt and that he does, indeed, hope to have lifted the financial sanctions imposed by the US.
The renewal of the six-party talks may slightly ease the friction between South Korea and the US. Among the causes of that have been disagreements between South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and US President George W. Bush over North Korea. Roh advocates accommodating North Korea, which some in Washington see as appeasing a member of President Bush's so-called "axis of evil."
A delegation of retired senior South Korean military officers visited Honolulu recently to suggest that the vocal anti-US rhetoric led by President Roh had endangered the alliance with the US.
The Koreans especially sought to prevent further withdrawal of US military forces from the Korean Peninsula beyond those already in motion. The US has 29,000 troops there today and plans to drop that to 25,000 in 2008.
The Korean appeal, however, may have been too late. President Roh has given no sign that he will relent before he leaves office in 2008. Likewise, the Bush administration seems to have lost interest in South Korea. Thus US forces will continue to leave.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has said those troops are needed elsewhere, such as in Iraq, and South Korean forces are strong enough to repel an attack from North Korea. Moreover, US officers in Seoul point to difficulties in resolving issues surrounding bases and training sites.
The delegation from the Korea Research of Military Affairs met with US specialists on Korea gathered by the Pacific Forum think tank in Hawaii. To encourage candor, the rules of meeting precluded speakers from being identified.
A Korean quickly set the tone by claiming that "the current ROK-US alliance is in crisis." The growth of Korean democracy, with its freedom of dissent and economic expansion contributed to Korean "self-confidence and nationalistic pride," he said. He noted a 2004 survey of young Koreans which found that a majority saw Kim and Bush as equal threats to peace.
When the US asked what South Korea would do to steady the alliance, however, the South Koreans answered with generalities, such as proposing a blueprint for the 21st century, or with silence.
Richard Halloran is a writer based in Hawaii.
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