Much is being made

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April 17, 2003 2:58 p.m.

Much is being made of North Korea’s apparent decision to accede to Bush administration demands for multilateral, rather than bilateral, talks over their nuclear weapons program. Now, as I said earlier, there are still lots of details to be ironed out. The beginning negotiating positions are still very far apart.

But, contrary to most press reports, these new talks themselves at least arguably amount to as great a climbdown for the United States as for North Korea. I say that because this plan — or something very near to it — has been on offer since mid-January.

Just to review, the North Koreans wanted bilateral talks with the US. The US wanted multilateral talks — talks, including the United States, North Korea and China, Russia, South Korea and Japan.

On January 14th, the Chinese offered to host talks between the United States and the North Koreans in Beijing. At the time, the US basically demurred. According to an article that appeared the next day in The New York Times

the White House said it welcomed China’s involvement and appeared receptive to talks with Pyongyang, though officials insisted that an end to North Korea’s nuclear plans was not negotiable. There was no immediate response to the offer from the Pyongyang government.

I’m not certain whether the North Koreans ever made a formal response. But, at the time, the US response was taken as a polite ‘no, thank you.’ It wasn’t how the White House wanted to proceed. But it also, rightly, didn’t want to offend the Chinese by swatting down the proposal. By some, China’s offer was even seen as slightly demeaning to the US, since it is usually the role of a great power to host or sponsor talks between lesser states — such as our role in the Middle East peace process, for instance.

Now we are having those talks in Beijing, only the Chinese are now participants rather than mere hosts.

Now, diplomacy is a game of subtle, but symbolically significant distinctions. And this is such a distinction. But, as distinctions go, this is, shall we say, rather subtle.

The truth is that the rapid victory in Iraq created incentives for both sides to get to the negotiating table (more on this soon). And that’s why they’re about to get there.

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