WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In floating the possibility of nuclear talks with the United States, North Korea took a first step on a road likely to be long, more arduous and just as prone to failure as past efforts.
Former U.S. officials who have dealt with the North reacted with deep skepticism to Pyongyang’s offer, made public by South Korea, to hold talks with the United States on denuclearization and to halt nuclear and missile tests while negotiating.
While arguing it is worth testing the waters to see if North Korea is willing to give up its nuclear program, and to glean intelligence from dealing with the secretive nation’s officials, they see virtually no chance Pyongyang will actually do so.
“For the past three decades, (administrations) of both political parties have tried every single option ... except the use of military force and none of these have halted the North,” said Mitchell Reiss, a senior U.S. diplomat under Republican former President George W. Bush who has negotiated with North Korea.
North Korea is likely to make demands that the United States would find anathema following Pyongyang’s reported statement that it has no need for a nuclear program “if military threats against the North are resolved and its regime is secure,” former U.S. officials said.
North Korea in the past has sought the withdrawal of U.S. forces in South Korea and the wider region, effectively meaning an end to the U.S.-South Korean alliance, something Washington could not accept.
“This is the sort of rhetoric that one encounters at the bare beginnings of a process that can last years, and of course the only processes that have been run with North Korea on the nuclear issue have come a cropper,” said a former U.S. official involved in talks with North Korea who spoke on condition of anonymity, using an idiom meaning failed.
Under the 1994 “Agreed Framework” negotiated under Democratic former U.S. President Bill Clinton, North Korea committed to freeze and dismantle its nuclear facilities in return for two lightwater reactors and fuel oil while the nuclear power plants were built.
That pact unraveled after Bush took office in 2001, with relations souring when he called North Korea part of an “axis of evil” and accused it of running a uranium enrichment program in violation of the 1994 deal.
The Bush administration ultimately engaged in “six-party” talks that achieved a deal in September 2005 under which North Korea agreed to give up its nuclear program in return for economic and energy aid and an end to its diplomatic isolation.
Those talks included the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States.
Relations again deteriorated when the United States froze North Korean accounts at a Macau bank in late 2005 and accused it of money laundering and when Pyongyang conducted its first nuclear test in October 2006.
In 2007, a new deal was struck under which North Korea would get a million tons of heavy fuel oil in return for steps to shut down and seal its main Yongbyon nuclear plant that produces weapons-grade plutonium and to invite inspectors to oversee them. That agreement unraveled in 2009.
North Korea has conducted six nuclear weapons tests and pushed ahead on trying to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles that, if mated to a nuclear warhead, could threaten the U.S. mainland.
Current and former U.S. officials said as a practical matter it is far more difficult to get a country to give up a weapons system it already possesses rather than one it is still developing.
“It’s much harder to get the North Koreans to undo something they have done in terms of missile development and nuclear development,” said Daniel Russel, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific.
“Peace has not broken out on the Korean peninsula,” Russel said, adding that North Korea so far has done nothing to signal a willingness to concede on denuclearization.
Russel said he saw the latest North Korean move as fitting a well-established pattern in which “the North Korean game has been to offer to rent some peace and quiet to the West.”
“What traditionally comes next is that they move up a ladder of escalating demands without offering significant or irreversible commitments or concessions, and finally, when they hit the limit and the U.S. or South Koreans put their foot down, that becomes the pretext to revert to the cycle of provocations.”
Nevertheless, said Chris Hill, the key U.S. negotiator with North Korea from 2005 to 2009, it is important for the Americans not to look stubborn or churlish about the prospects.
“We need to be responsive and not miss the moment,” Hill said, if only to show the people of American allies South Korea and Japan that the United States is willing to talk. “That said, I don’t think we have peace in our times.”
Additional reporting by Jonathan Landay, Matt Spetalnick and John Walcott; Editing by Mary Milliken and Will Dunham