In his state of the union address last week, u.s. president George W. Bush restrained himself on the topic of North Korea, saying merely: “We are working closely with the governments in Asia to convince North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions.” That was it. Nothing about an “axis of evil” or “outposts of oppression.” Leaving aside the question of how closely Washington is working with China and other countries that are urging Kim Jong Il to surrender his nukes, the President’s statement, however brief, signals a continued commitment to the six-party talks, which have been stalled since June. North Korea has been the holdout. It may have been no coincidence, then, that a story appeared in the New York Times the morning before the President’s address claiming the U.S. has evidence that North Korea sold nuclear material to Libya—a subtle attempt, perhaps, to nudge Pyongyang back to the negotiating table.
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.
[The potential blowback of a strike on North Korea presents] a situation you’re kind of stuck with because there doesn’t seem to be an easy way, with any degree of confidence, that you could presume to take out all the nuclear weapons, wherever they are located, take out all of their capacity to inflict damage on South Korea. You realize just how risky this strategy is.