The Bush administration hailed as a victory North Korea’s announcement in late July that it would participate in six-party talks on its nuclear program. The White House had insisted for months that Pyongyang’s illicit activities were a regional issue best resolved in a multilateral setting. But unless the administration enters the new talks willing to negotiate, its victory on how many countries get to sit at the table will prove fleeting.
If past is prologue, the late summer meeting will produce sparks. North Korean and U.S. diplomats have met twice since the nuclear crisis resurfaced a year ago. Both times Pyongyang surprised the Americans by admitting rather than denying its nuclear ambitions. Last October, North Korean officials told James Kelly, the head of the U.S. delegation, that the North had an illicit uranium-enrichment program. Then, in a meeting this April, Kelly’s counterpart informed him that Pyongyang had produced nuclear weapons, and that it could and would “display them,” “make more” or “transfer them.” In both cases, the North Korean statements ended the talks.
Don’t be surprised, therefore, if this pattern repeats itself in the latest round of meetings. The evidence suggests that North Korea has finished extracting plutonium from 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods that had been kept in storage as part of the 1994 agreement with the Clinton administration—giving it material for half a dozen more weapons. Should Pyongyang admit what Washington fears, the talks will likely disband in acrimony.