The North Korean rail disaster presented the United States and other countries an opportunity to build trust with Pyongyang and add momentum to the six party nuclear talks. US offers of assistance were made, and Pyongyang has agreed to participate in working level talks on the nuclear issue starting May 12th. Yet despite the apparent progress, the North Korea and the United States remain far apart and no resolution of the nuclear crisis can be expected in the near future, and not before the US Presidential election in November.

For some analysts, the rail disaster reminded many of the 1987 nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, where the Soviet Union's hard exterior was broken and foreign assistance began a long process that weakened and ultimately led to the end of the Soviet Union. The image of perfection was shattered not only for the outside world, but for the Soviet citizens when news of the disaster was carried on internal news programs. The decision to carry news of the explosion and deaths inside North Korea may one day be seen as a turning point in internal perceptions, but it is still too soon to say what the long term affects will be.

What is clear is that the visit by Kim Jong-Il to Beijing to discuss the 6 party talks and the nuclear issue resulted in a renewed willingness by Pyongyang to engage the other five parties to the talks. While no one outside of a small circle knows that the Chinese and North Korean leaders discussed in detail, it appears that Pyongyang is at least willing to take the next step in discussions with the outside world. And why not. It is clear that the Bush administration is unwilling to put any serious additional pressure on North Korea before the US election in November, and Pyongyang can adopt a forward leaning position and portray Washington as the party unwilling to negotiate.

Pyongyang cleverly described the talks, in the announcement that they would participate in the working level discussions as "reward for freeze "talks. This, of course, ignores the standing allied position that the talks focus on obtaining from North Korea a commitment to complete, verified, irreversible disarmament. The result is that North Korea can claim to be willing to negotiate, so long as the United States refuses to put forward a direct offer of what it and the other parties are willing to doing exchange for North Korea's eliminating its nuclear program.

The danger in this situation is that as the US election draws closer, Pyongyang will have a strong incentive to create a crisis in order to put maximum pressure on Washington and the Bush administration. Indeed, Pyongyang may also be hoping that President Bush does not win re-election and is able to extract a better deal from the new John Kerry administration. Either way, as each day passes the potential for miscalculation and mistakes increase, meaning that the US and ROK alliance must remain strong and that both sides must balance difficult domestic and international challenges at the same time.

Unfortunately, there has been little effort by the United States or the ROK to increase its coordination on the full range of security and alliance issues. The United States has been focused on Iraq and the growing instability there, as well as the looming presidential elections. The impeachment, new parliament and the impending deployment of ROK troops to Korea has been the main focus in South Korea. As a result, North Korea has received relatively little attention, giving Pyongyang both an incentive and an opportunity to create a crisis and remind the world of its demands.

To prevent North Korea from gaining the upper hand, the United States and ROK leaders must work closely and communicate directly with Pyongyang to make progress toward an agreement and to make clear that any attempt to create a crisis will only result in more pressure and aid for the North. If the two countries have learned anything since 1950 it is that they can only achieve their collective security goals by remaining close and keeping the lines of communication open between top leaders in both states. Anything else gives North Korea the opening its seeks to divide the alliance. This does not mean a negotiated solution is impossible, but it suggests that a lot more hard work than is currently being invested will be needed to achieve one.

Jon Wolfsthal is deputy director of the Non-Proliferation Project


Past Columns in the Munhwa Ilbo by Jon Wolfsthal:

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