All in all, the talks on North Korea's nuclear programme that ended in Beijing last week went as well as could be expected. There were no breakthroughs, but neither did the talks end ruinously.
The challenge now for the countries involved will be ensuring that another round of talks follows, especially given Pyongyang's latest announcement that further talks would be "useless".
The format of the Beijing meeting—three days, six countries and dozens of translators—made any significant substantive progress very unlikely. If anything, given what Russia's deputy foreign minister called the "abyss of distrust", between North Korea and the U.S., and their sharply articulated divergent positions, the possibility that talks would simply break down loomed large.
Moreover, to put it mildly, negotiations with "the hermit kingdom" can always veer into unexpected territory. Last October, North Korea made the unanticipated admission of its uranium enrichment programme, triggering the current crisis. In Beijing, to the surprise and consternation of all the countries involved, North Korea's deputy foreign minister declared plans to test an atomic weapon.
Despite this jolt, there were some positive developments. U.S. officials lauded the remarkable concurrence among "the five", as they call themselves—including South Korea, Japan, China and Russia—as to the nature of the problem. Moreover, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly and North Korea's representative, Kim Yong-il, did have a short, informal bilateral meeting, thus confirming that the structure of the talks could satisfy both the U.S.' call for a multilateral approach and North Korea's insistence on bilateral meetings.
The multilateral format clearly showed North Korea the full extent of its isolation, and officials reportedly did state that, in principle, they would be willing to dismantle their nuclear weapons programme in exchange for a variety of concessions. Finally, while the countries did not issue a formal joint declaration, as planned, the five did reach a consensus on the need for future talks, likely to convene within two months. Continuing negotiations are certainly the best of the bad alternatives to resolving the North Korean nuclear crisis.
Some in the U.S. have advocated military action against plutonium reprocessing and uranium enrichment sites, but the dangers to South Korea of a North Korean retaliatory attack make such an option extraordinarily risky. In addition, the North Korean targets of such a strike would be hard to find, because their nuclear programmes are clandestine, and reliable intelligence is scarce.
Making sure the next round of negotiations takes place as planned will not necessarily be a cakewalk. Provocative behaviour by North Korea and a potential policy shift in the United States, or one followed by the other, could derail the process. U.S. officials have announced their intention to "stay the course". However, each round of talks that does not produce visible progress, and each new threat from North Korea, strengthens the arguments of those Americans who assert that negotiating with North Korea is pointless and that the U.S. should instead opt for a policy of regime change that would begin with an economic squeeze, even a blockade. This group may argue for increased and more robust programmes of interdictions and military exercises leading up to the next set of talks.
For its part, North Korea could also scuttle the diplomatic track by refusing to meet again or, worse, by testing a nuclear weapon, as it claimed it would in Beijing. Many analysts doubt the North could actually conduct such a test. The North is probably hoping that the threat of testing will create another bargaining chip its negotiators can work with.
While a nuclear test would not change much factually—the CIA already estimates that North Korea has one or two nuclear weapons—it would dramatically change the politics of North Korea policy in the U.S., and would likely end any hope of a co-operative solution.
North Koreans may assume that until the next presidential election, and given the state of affairs in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. is unlikely to venture into another military action. But history tells us that it is dangerous to make predictions based on American politics. Even if their calculation is correct, an economic chokehold agreed to by all its trading partners would put severe pressure on North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.
Last week's talks were a limited success, but the real test of whether diplomacy can resolve this crisis will play out over the coming months. Two months can be a long time.
Nina Hachigian is director of the Center for Asia Pacific Policy at RAND, a non-profit research institute based in Santa Monica, California.
This commentary originally appeared in South China Morning Post on September 3, 2003.