Wednesday, July 09, 2008

What did North Korea want during the Beijing talks?

North Korea had a simple goal for the Beijing talks with the United States. Pyongyang reckoned that direct talks with the US would convince Washington to decouple from Seoul and withdraw American troops. Such a withdrawal would open the peninsula to reunification on North Korea’s terms. The problem with the policy of “decoupling- withdrawal-reunification” was the single-mindedness with which Pyongyang pursued it. Rather than setting realistic intermediate goals that could actually be reached as confidence building measures, the North Korean maintained strident adherence to the over-arching goal. In addition, South Korea was adamantly against the US making concessions without being present for the negotiations.

For the US, the major concern in establishing a dialogue with North Korea was to establish a dialogue. The foreign policy advisors for the first President Bush had developed a mindset that talks themselves had intrinsic value. There was no need to give the interlocutors on the US side a goal or policy to pursue, since achieving talks was goal enough. Eventually, the US began to pursue minor concessions such as tangible steps to improve relations with South Korea and the return of remains of war dead. But since South Korea was cut out of the negotiations, the US was happy just to talk and the North Koreans were making unrealistic demands, there was little real incentive or expectation for progress. It was only when the US, Japan and South Korea offered tangible goods to the North through KEDO did negotiations begin to bear fruit.