Multilateral? Well ... kindalateral. Bush administration Korea policy got an apparent boost a couple days ago when the North Koreans suddenly (a couple days after the fall of Baghdad) announced they were willing to engage in multilateral talks over their nuclear weapons program so long as the US was "ready to make a bold switch-over in its Korea policy for a settlement of the nuclear issue." On Sunday, the president crowed -- not without some justification -- that his tough policy against Iraq had made the North Koreans cave.
But now there seems to be a catch.
The North Koreans say they're okay with multilateral talks. But, according to an article in today's Korea Herald, North Korea -- and China -- say they don't want the Russians or the Japanese at table.
We probably don't mind not having the Russians there. But according to Chris Nelson, at The Nelson Report, the US would find excluding Japan from multilateral talks "unacceptable under any circumstances."
The rationale for the exclusion, according to the article is that the UN, China, North Korea and the United States were the only signatories to the original 1953 armistice agreement. So Russia and Japan are just not relevant to a new conference that would move beyond the armistice agreement and toward a non-aggression pact -- the North Koreans key, and apparently still operative, demand.
That may work as an purported rationale. But it doesn't really wash as the actual reason.
And there's one other party the North Koreans and the Chinese would like to have at the table: the European Union.
The Korea Herald article quotes a Foreign Ministry official in Seoul saying that "the North wants the European Union (EU) to participate in the multilateral forum in an apparent hope that the EU may play a leading role in providing economic aid to Pyongyang." But it's hard not to see some extra-economic motivations behind the desire of the Chinese and the North Koreans to pull up a chair for the EU.
Here's a good Reuters piece -- moved before the news about Russia and Japan -- on the hard-bargaining to come. There are some particularly good quotes from Ralph Cossa, head of the Pacific Forum, a branch of the DC think-tank CSIS. Cossa's predecessor at the Pacific Forum was none other than James A. Kelly, the State Department point man on East Asia and the North Korea issue. (I think Cossa worked under Kelly as Executive Director before Kelly moved on to State in 2001.)
Assuming some agreement can be worked out over who's a party to the negotiation, the question now is whether the president will have the courage to say 'yes' and test the North Koreans' willingness to make a deal or whether he'll follow the lead of those on his right flank who say that war with North Korea is essential and inevitable -- the only question being whether we pull the trigger now or wait a few years.