U.S. open to direct talks with North Korea

South Korea has endorsed direct talks between the United States and North Korea, as long as their purpose is to bring the Communist country back into multi-lateral negotiations. International pressure and economic sanctions have been insufficient to influence North Korea on its nuclear program, not to mention its weapons export business.

The six-party talks -- which include Russia, China and Japan along with the United States and the two countries on the peninsula -- are designed to represent all stakeholders in the region.

North Korea's goal for the past several years has been to bring the United States alone to the table, as this at least implies some form of diplomatic relations. The two countries do not have any formal relationship, and the United States does not have an embassy or consulate in Pyongyang. The six-party negotiating structure shields U.S. diplomats from this perception and also engages the neighbors most sympathetic to North Korea in the hopes that they can help reason with the sometimes obstinate regime.

The U.S. State Department said on Friday that it would speak directly with Pyongyang, but only as a way to bring the country back into the multi-party arrangement -- consistent with South Korea's interests and a slight departure from its previous position. Yet, the State Department claims this does not represent a change in policy, given the focus on returning North Korea to the full six-party structure. The department's spokesman, P.J. Crowley, said on Friday, "We've made no decisions at this point, other than just to say we are prepared for a bilateral talk, if that will help advance the six-party process."

In September 2005, North Korea said it would halt its nuclear programs in exchange for foreign aid. The talks have not moved along consistently, with Pyongyang seemingly nullifying every step toward disarmament with another test or weapons-related scandal. Most recently, the U.S. Treasury Department froze the assets of the Korea Kwangson Banking Corp. because of its involvement in financing and facilitating the export of weapons of mass destruction.

The North Korean regime is clearly motivated by its internal economic woes, as it sent an envoy to China two weeks ago to seek food and other support. The limited commerce that North Korea has with the outside world is not enough to sustain the country, and a smaller harvest than usual this year will only exacerbate the problem.

Nonetheless, the Korea Central News Agency said on Friday that the "Taedonggang Foodstuff Processing Factory of Pyongyang is producing quality carbonated fruit juice powder of various kinds," and "Kefir and other goat milk products are available in roast goat-meat restaurants in different parts of Pyongyang." The latter, which are "set up under the popular policy of the government are conducive to the improvement of working people's dietary life."

The typical North Korean doublespeak suggests that the Kim Jong-il regime is managing its appearance, usually a sign that the country is ready to talk. U.S. and South Korean officials and academics believe that direct negotiations with the United States are the best way to bring the isolated country back into the six-part context. The multi-party approach is preferred by the United States and South Korea because of China's participation -- and its influence over North Korea.

If the bilateral talks don't work, at least Crowley and special envoy Stephen Bosworth can hit the kefir stands and enjoy some North Korean goat milk, which is "tasty, highly nutritive and rich in phosphorus."

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