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How Can the US and N. Korea Restart Talks?


A year after the historic summit between the North and South Korean presidents, all activity aimed at easing tensions on the peninsula has halted, and there are fears that new problems may undermine the progress that has been made in the past. A panel of more than 50 experts on Northeast Asia security is recommending ways for the Bush administration to try to revive talks with North Korea.

The panel warns that past progress in negotiations with North Korea is not irreversible. It says new talks are needed to prevent the existing freeze on the North's nuclear program from unraveling. It adds the momentum of Korean reconciliation has slowed and uncertainty now looms over the peninsula.

The 51 member task force sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations has made previous reports and recommendations about U.S. policy toward North Korea, but this is its first report to the new Bush administration.

The director of Asian Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, Robert Manning, was director of the task force and helped draft the document, called "Testing North Korea - the next stage in U.S. and South Korean Policy."

"What we were trying to do is to suggest North Korea is probably the world's least transparent society. We don't know how decision making is made," Mr. Manning said, "and therefore what we can do is unknowable. So, you have to test them. What we're saying in the report is we need to put a serious package of incentives on the table and test their intentions."

One suggestion from the panel is a policy it calls, "more for more." It is intended to finalize some questions left open by the 1994 agreement that froze the North's nuclear weapons program. According to the proposal, if North Korea allows visits by International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, agrees to enhanced nuclear safeguards, and makes immediate arrangements to ship its processed plutonium out of the country, all things not stipulated in the 1994 accord, then the United States would give North Korea electricity it desperately needs.

The report urges the Bush administration to choose which items have the highest priority, from its long "wish list" of issues, which include a permanent halt to Pyongyang's suspected nuclear weapons program, eliminating its missile and conventional weapons threats and promoting human rights. The panel adds Washington should not let some issues get in the way of progress on others.

In the past, the United States has focused on one issue at a time with North Korea, first nuclear weapons and later missiles. Last year's negotiations on ways to limit North Korea's missile production and exports broke down over the problem of verification.

The Bush administration did not pick up where the Clinton administration left off. It conducted a review of policy and said that the issue of conventional force reductions should be added to the agenda. Most experts consider conventional force balance to be the basic issue for bringing lasting peace to the Korean peninsula, and the Council on Foreign Relations panel also recommends it be part of negotiations with the North.

But panel member Stephen Costello disagrees and wrote a dissenting paragraph in the report. "There was no demonstrable need for the U.S. to publicly introduce this element. That element was constantly discussed by the U.S. and its South Korean allies. The South Koreans obviously had a plan to make sure at the earliest point," Mr. Costello says, "probably at the second summit, if and when it ever occurred, to make sure that one of the agreements they got from the North Koreans in that was a beginning move on confidence building measures, CBMs, related to conventional forces. So, it's not as if this issue was being neglected."

Mr. Costello, director of the "Korea in Transition" program at the Atlantic Council, says by introducing the conventional weapons issue, the United States handed North Korea another excuse to halt negotiations. He says the Bush administration has come to understand this and now says it will meet with North Korea anywhere, anytime with no preconditions.

Another panel member, Gordon Flake, director of the Mansfield Center for Pacific Affairs, says reducing conventional forces along the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea should be seen not as a confidence building measure, but as the endgame, the final act leading to peace on the peninsula. "There's a lot of crowing within the Bush administration that we need to have a rollback from the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone)," he says, "that one of the first steps as an initial confidence building measure should be to roll back North Korean artillery or to roll back North Korean troops from the DMZ, when in reality that's tantamount to asking North Korea to surrender."

Mr. Flake says North Korea sees its national security as defined only by its presence along the DMZ. And he says if the United States insists on conventional force reductions, that could jeopardize progress on missile issues or talks on establishing diplomatic relations. But Mr. Flake adds the Bush administration is not solely to blame for the lack of momentum in talks with the North. He says there is just no capacity in Pyongyang to move on difficult issues.

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