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Friday, November 6, 2009     GET REAL

Playing the N. Korea game by Kim Jong-Il rules

By Donald Kirk

SEOUL — From his seat of power in Pyongyang, Kim Jong-Il waves a lordly hand. Here comes former United States president Bill Clinton with his retinue, begging for the favor of an audience. And there's Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, beseeching the Dear Leader for the dispensation of deals and understandings.

Next on the list is the United States envoy on Korean problems big and small, Stephen Bosworth. He too will genuflect before the power — not the Dear Leader, but perhaps, if he bows low enough, Kim's top policy-maker on nuclear warheads, Kang Sok-Ju.

Before Bosworth joins the parade of supplicants to the Dear One's holy city — he confirmed on Thursday that he will visit Pyongyang before the end of the year — two somewhat lesser acolytes seem poised to make the pilgrimage. Call them the advance party.

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One, Jack Pritchard, president of the Korea Economic Institute and a one-time U.S. negotiator with the North, has been a fierce critic of what he sees as an uncompromising approach by the Americans he once served. The other, Scott Snyder, who directs Korea policy at the Asia Foundation, speaks out regularly on North Korea, generally from a somewhat centrist viewpoint.

They too will be paying the obeisance required of all visitors as, in the words of a diplomatic source quoted by Yonhap, the South Korean news agency, they "meet with key North Korean officials involved in the country's nuclear program".

Their visit is to be "private", we are told, but that's a distinction the North Koreans don't bother with. Former president Clinton's visit was "private", but Kim Jong-Il was pretty sure Clinton would be briefing U.S. President Barack Obama, not to mention Clinton's wife, Hillary, the secretary of state, when he got back to Washington.

And it's a sure thing that Pritchard and Snyder, as soon as they get back to Washington, will be full of sage counsel for Bosworth on how to deal with the North Koreans. The fact that both of them travel on government budgets — the Korea Economic Institute is funded by South Korea and the Asia Foundation by the U.S. and a raft of others — makes them official enough as far as Pyongyang is concerned.

The stream of visitors high and low to Pyongyang adds just the type of drama that Kim Jong-Il loves to mastermind as he flirts with another crisis on his nuclear program and looks for openings in the seemingly solid front of the sanctions regime imposed by the United Nations after his last nuclear test on May 25.

The timing is all the more propitious as Obama is set to sweep through the region. He arrives in Japan on November 12, before heading to Singapore for the summit of leaders of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation grouping. Next stop will be China — the country that really counts as far as North Korea is concerned. Finally, the tour winds up in South Korea on November 19.

Acute dramatist that he is, Kim Jong-Il is emitting hints designed to arouse tensions as the actors and bit players rehearse their lines.

One day the word is that he's running out of patience — "time is running out", as the Korean Central News Agency quoted the usual "anonymous" Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying — for the U.S. to agree to bilateral talks. The next day comes word that technicians at the nuclear complex at Yongbyon are done reprocessing 8,000 spent fuel rods and are enjoying "noticeable successes", thank you very much, in producing more nuclear devices.

Against this background, it's tempting to ask why bother. No one here thinks North Korea is actually going to give up its nuclear program, and what can Bosworth, not to mention Pritchard and Snyder, hope to accomplish?

Victor Cha, a former White House Asia specialist and now a professor at Georgetown University, has a convoluted explanation that may actually make sense. "The argument for why it would be worthwhile to send Bosworth is to try to move the Chinese," he remarked on a visit here.

How's that again? No one's talking about Bosworth going to China except en route in and out of Pyongyang.

"The Chinese are in a carrot mode," said Cha at a session of the Korea Foundation in Seoul. The Chinese are saying, in effect, that with the visit of Premier Wen in early October, they've done their best to talk sense into the North Koreans and now, "if only the Americans would go there ... "

Ok, then what? Here's where Cha's thesis gets really interesting. The point of the Bosworth mission, he indicated, without actually saying so, would be to fail. Or, as Cha put it, "Bosworth could go there and come back and say the North Koreans are not serious." So take that, China. No longer could the Chinese be telling the Americans to at least talk to these people, and no longer could anyone anywhere accuse the U.S. of not wanting to deal.

Cha ruled out the slightest chance of Bosworth doing much more in Pyongyang than what he's been saying he'll do all along, that is, try to talk the North Koreans into returning to six-party talks hosted by China that were last held nearly one year ago.

Bosworth, as a precondition for his visit, is demanding to see North Korea's first Vice Foreign Minister, Kang Sok-Ju, the major player on the nuclear issue.

It won't be enough for him to meet Kim Kye-Gwan, the deputy foreign minister who has done most of the actual negotiating, and he certainly won't want to do more than shake hands with Ri Gun, the next ranking guy, who spent last week in New York talking to Sung Kim, the chief U.S. negotiator on nukes.

Regardless of whom he sees, says Cha, "I don't think Bosworth will come back with some major agreement" — or even any "irreversible thing" that might involve South Korea and Japan.

It's because it wants to exclude these nations that North Korea wants direct talks with the U.S.. The worst fear in South Korea is that the U.S. will somehow negotiate a deal, whether South Korea likes it or not, while the South remains on the sidelines. Exclusion of South Korea is intrinsic in Kim Jong-Il's act as the ruler of all Koreans before whom all others bow, as did the previous South Korean presidents, Kim Dae-Jung and Roh Moo-Hyun, when they flew to Pyongyang for inter-Korean summits in 2000 and 2007.

Some observers wonder if Bosworth might gain a slight negotiating edge by insisting on meeting the North Koreans anywhere but in Pyongyang.

"Bosworth is willing to meet them anywhere to talk about the issue of denuclearization," said Michael McDevitt, a retired rear admiral, now vice president of the Center for Naval Analyses, a U.S. Navy research contractor. "We need to remind them of all the previous programs we've had" — a reference to agreements reached in 2007 under which North Korea signed off on deals for disablement and dismantlement of its entire nuclear program in return for massive aid.

Balbina Hwang, a lecturer at the National Defense University in Washington, is a little more outspoken. "It's a huge mistake for Bosworth to go to Pyongyang," she remarked after a conference in Seoul. "Depending on how it goes, we'll see how serious is the Obama administration" in talks with the North.

Regardless of who talks where, Cha does not see the U.S. side budging. "If that ever got back to negotiations, it would look like buying the same horse for the third time," he said, in reference to the failed 1994 Geneva framework agreement as well as the failed 2007 agreements. "This administration has boxed itself in, where it cannot buy the same horse for the third time."

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