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June 18, 2006

North Korea: Direct Talks on Direct Talks
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

The latest is that North Korea appears to be preparing a test launch of a long-range missile capable of reaching the US.  If it happens, it will be a huge setback in our dealings with N Korea, will likely escalate momentum for a missile defense system, and could complicate US relations throughout Asia. 

No matter how this plays out, pundits will focus on the question of whether the Bush Administration has made a mistake in refusing to talk directly with Pyongyang.  Since coming into office, President Bush has refused repeated overtures by Kim Jong Il to open direct talks, insisting that all negotiations with the North occur within a 6-party framework.   The latest rebuff came just two weeks ago, right after the White House laid down conditions under which it said it would talk directly to Iran.

All this has got me thinking about the subject of "direct talks" with dangerous and uncontrollable regimes.  (Note that - at least for tonight - I am not opining on how to solve the crisis on the Peninsula, nor to comment on what is right or wrong about the Administration's policies beyond the question of direct talks). 

I understand the notion that by engaging directly in talks with countries that make threats and flout international norms, the US risks dignifying and publicizing these nations' illegitimate positions and causes.  I also recognize that amid bitter and longstanding policy conflicts, the chances that direct talks between diplomats with vastly different objectives and value-systems will help bridge differences may be slim indeed.  I don't think that pushing for direct talks with either North Korea or Iran comes close to proffering a "solution" to either crisis.  It merely advocates a change in the process by which the conflicts are currently dealt with.

With that said, I wonder whether the US might not be better off with a blanket policy of unconditional willingness to talk directly to North Korea, Iran, and any nation that asks to meet with us face-to-face.  We would not be offering to change our positions, concede any of our arguments, or give credence to any of theirs, but rather simply to meet with no strings attached and no promises implied. The case for such a policy shift is this:

- Right now, the refusal to talk directly to the likes of North Korea and Iran gives the state in question and, often the rest of the world, grounds to criticize the US and blame us for failure to solve the standoffs.  We can ill-afford this;

- A blanket policy of willingness to talk to any nation on any subject of mutual concern without conditions would blunt the idea that, in any particular situation (see, e.g., Iran), willingness to engage in direct talks amounts to the US being backed into a corner or reflects a weakening of the US position.  We would talk not because we thought talks would be fruitful, nor because we necessarily credit what the other party would say, but rather because we made it a blanket policy to always be open to talks;

- Amid a climate of skepticism, hostility and - in some quarters - demonization of the US, willingness to engage in direct talks would help counter the perception of US arrogance, intransigence, and refusal to listen to the views of others;

- Agreeing to talk does not mean agreeing to talk endlessly - if talks prove unproductive, having done its part and made a genuine attempt at fruitful discussions, the US can feel justified in walking away;

- There's no contradiction between bilateral talks and multilateral diplomacy.  That's a cynical argument that misunderstands multilateral diplomacy.   Multilateral negotiation processes are filled with bilateral sidebars, which are where much of the hard work happens.   UN representatives spend much of their time in one-on-one discussions with other delegations, and those sessions are an indispensable part of getting anything done.

- Contrary to what one might think, opening the floodgates for direct talks would not overburden the diplomatic apparatus.  An offer of direct talks need not, at least not in the first-instance, necessarily imply particularly high-level talks.  We have thousands of diplomats in embassies around the world who are trained to engage with their host countries on all manner of issues.  On sensitive matters of national security, such as Iran or North Korea, teams of the most talented diplomats are working the issues around the clock.  Being able to talk directly to counterparts could help them get answers more quickly, deepen their analysis, and better guide American policy.  High-stakes talks do require the formulation and approval of policies at the highest levels within the State Department and White House, a process that does take time.  But by agreeing to face-to-face talks with anyone who sees them, we're not promising to meet on their timetable.   If we need extra time to formulate positions, we can and should take it.  Diplomatic processes are notoriously slow, so this will not come as a big surprise.

Note that my arguments do not include a contention that direct talks will necessarily help solve crises.  They may or may not, but there are other important reasons why a blanket policy to permit one-on-one negotiations may help advance US policy interests.


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N. Korea waving it's missiles around is mainly a setback for China, as it makes it harder to pretend that N. Korea can be 'managed', and it makes everyone else in the area more interested in a missile defense system. Only one nation has the technology to build one, and it's not China.

How is this bad for the US?

The latest rebuff came just two weeks ago, right after the White House laid down conditions under which it said it would talk directly to Iran.

From the reports I read, the White House said the US would be willing to join the ongoing negotiations involving Iran, Russia, Britain, France, and Germany. Yes, there would be a US diplomat one one side of the table and an Iranian diplomat on the other, but they would not be alone. NK wants 'direct' talks in the sense that there would only be US and NK diplomats at the table.

Is my information out of date, or are you mistaken?

Too bad Bush invaded Iraq which he knew to be no threat and dropped the ball on North Korea and Iran. Perhaps if Bush hadn't screwed things up so badly in his attempt to be a "war president", he might have been able to deal with the real threats facing America. Of course, had he been on the ball, 9/11 would not have happened and history would be quite different. Well, he got his wish. He is a war president and is set for life. Too bad so many people had to die for his lies.



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