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U.S.-North Korea: Behind Closed Doors

Prepared by: Carin Zissis
Updated January 30, 2007

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While attention focused on the Bush administration’s new Iraq war plan in recent weeks, the White House strategy shifted significantly on another foreign policy conundrum: North Korea’s nuclear program. CFR.org presents an in-depth, multimedia look at the standoff on the Korean peninsula in this new Crisis Guide.

In 2002, President Bush famously included North Korea in the “Axis of Evil” along with Iraq and Iran, and the Bush administration has long refused the Hermit Kingdom’s demands for bilateral negotiations. The North does not want “‘drive-by’ encounters” with the United States and instead seeks “sustained talks in which ideas can be explored and solutions, at last, patiently developed,” says a Washington Post op-ed. But even in the tense weeks after North Korea’s nuclear test last October, the White House rejected the idea. The day after the test, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told CNN that when the Clinton administration tried dialogue with Pyongyang in the 1990s, “It didn’t work.”

Yet the State Department now confirms that Christopher Hill, its lead man on East Asia, met with his North Korean counterpart Kim Kye-gwan for three days in Berlin (Deutsche Welle) in mid-January. Hill refused to divulge specifics about what he called a “useful” meeting, but the North Korean negotiator “sounded positively giddy” after the Berlin discussion, according to South Korea’s Joong Ang Daily. Hill said the talks served as a prelude to further multilateral discussion involving China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea, the other Six-Party Talk members. Meanwhile, Rice insisted the Hill-Kim talks were informal and the United States would not go “outside the Six-Party framework to bilateralize our discussions.”

The Six-Party Talks, aimed at controlling North Korea’s nuclear program, made little progress when resumed in December after more than a year’s hiatus. The Toledo Blade argues that lack of progress was precisely what finally convinced Washington to sit down with Pyongyang. Although Hill and Rice denied North Korea’s assertion that the two parties reached a “certain agreement” (IHT) in Berlin, both sides appear positive about the prospects for steps forward in the next Six-Party round, which will begin February 8. South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo wonders what went on behind the closed doors, and posits the two sides may have resolved disagreement over “the main sticking point in international efforts to settle the North Korean nuclear crisis”: Pyongyang’s frozen Macao bank accounts. The United States took action against North Korea in September 2005, accusing it of using the accounts for laundering counterfeit dollars, and China froze North Korean assets in Macao last July.

But even as North Korean nuclear negotiations appear to take a positive turn, Washington and Pyongyang still find reasons to spar. The United Nations announced it will send auditors to North Korea after Washington recently accused the Kim regime of misappropriating millions of dollars (AP) intended for humanitarian purposes from the UN Development Program (UNDP). A report by the Heritage Foundation says the UNDP provided hard currency with limited oversight to Pyongyang and the possible scandal involves a “depressingly familiar story of UN inefficiency and incompetence.” North Korea called Washington’s allegations a “smear campaign” orchestrated by the United States “to meet its dirty political aims” (Yonhap).

Another obstacle remains the danger of North Korea sharing nuclear secrets. The Daily Telegraph reports that Pyongyang invited Iranian nuclear scientists to study the results of its October nuclear test.

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