The invaluable Chris Nelson

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The invaluable Chris Nelson, on the latest on the North Korea front, in this evening’s Nelson Report

1. The current “news” is that, first, N. Korea says it won’t come back to the 6-party talks until it gets financial inducements which the U.S. continues to say it won’t approve; and, second, two private U.S. delegations are in and/or enroute to North Korea, and that the White House did not stop them, as it did policy critic and Congressman Kurt Weldon (R-Pa.) last year.

— more on the 6 party talks later. Apparently in N. Korea is a group including former State Dept. negotiator Amb. Chuck Pritchard, now of Brookings, who was basically pushed out of the DPRK liaison slot by Vice President Cheney’s office, with help from Undersecretary of State John Bolton.

2. Expected to arrive soon is a Congressional “staff del” on behalf of Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Richard Lugar (Keith Luse) and Ranking Dem Joe Biden (Frank Jannuzi), on a reprise of their private mission of last summer.

— critics point out that what Luse, Jannuzi and Pritchard have in common, and what puts them in the “untrustworthy” category for Administration hard liners, is that all three have extensive, face-to-face experience talking with senior N. Korean officials about the issues which the hardliners claim are so mysterious.

3. Initial press accounts tried to reflect ROK Government optimism that by allowing the two missions, the White House was sending a covert “signal” of a more open attitude toward dealing with the DPRK…but any such spin was firmly shot down over the weekend.

— it’s significant that “pro-engagement” sources reinforce the initial statement by State’s Adam Ereli that while State holds the Congressional staff delegation in the highest personal and professional regard, they frankly see more risk than opportunity from the visit: “Certainly any efforts that complicate prospects or undertakings to reconvene the six-party talks and to achieve forward movement in dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program aren’t helpful”.

4. Today, a highly placed source explains, “The Administration is always concerned when the DPRK seems to want to negate the 6-party talks mechanism and pursue separate channels, particularly with American groups. We think the opportunities for mischief in this are neither remote nor small, and I say that with full respect for Messrs Luse and Jannuzi…”.

— following up on Ereli’s official remarks last Friday, this source elaborates: “Contrary to the [initial press coverage of the two delegations] neither…goes with any approval, mandate, briefings or message from the Administration.”

5. On the 6 Party talks, Russia and China today apparently failed to come up with compromise language which would allow a resumption, which they now concede would not be until February, at the earliest.

— Russia/China tried to take up the long-standing DPRK offer of a “freeze” on its nuclear activities, but seem to have run headlong into today’s reiteration by Pyongyang that it wants to be paid…this, despite President Bush’s prompt rejection of a freeze during the U.S./China summit, followed by a the mid-December reiteration of the hardliner position that Pyongyang must agree to “irreversible” dismantling of its nuclear programs.

6. Sources confirm press stories from Dec. 19 that Vice President Cheney continues to play a critical role in enforcing a hard line, something that Amb. Pritchard has charged repeatedly, since retiring from the State Department.

— according to involved players, Cheney led the way in rejecting an earlier Chinese compromise effort, although his concern was portrayed as more tactical than strategic. Cheney insisted that a press statement prior to any 6-party resumption would have to contain the “mantra” about “irreversible” etc.

7. Informed engager sources concede that while no one can object to the goal, Cheney’s requirement that China and the other participants agree in advance in a pre-negotiation press statement “was enough to block any chance of coming to the table at this point.”

With these late details in mind, see this piece by Fred <$Ad$>Kaplan in today’s Slate.

Last week, administration boosters (either misunderstanding or intentionally distorting)made out as though the departure of this delegation was a sign that the NKs were folding in the face of Saddam’s capture and the general success of regime change in Iraq.

The truth is rather different. As we’ve noted in these pages before, for roughly a year now, the administration has been walking back from its own policy toward North Korea — first holding negotiations it said it would never hold, then broaching security assurances it said it would never guarantee, and then — contrary to previous statements — offering the prospect of new aid even before comprehensive disarmament.

The movement hasn’t been linear or clean — more like a series of wiggly gyres. But the overall direction has been fairly clear. The question now is whether the White House can ditch its failed policy once and for all and begin to move forward.

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