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Slate's War Stories: N. Korea Returns to Nuke Talks

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

After more than a year of posturing and public name-calling, the US and North Korea agreed this week to resume six-party talks over the North's nuclear program. The announcement was a big shift for the Bush administration, which took a hard line on North Korea during last year's presidential campaign. It's also a shift for North Korea's Kim Jong Il. The new talks begin later this month.

For some analysis of how this recent breakthrough came about, we turn to Fred Kaplan. He writes on military affairs for our partners at the online magazine Slate.

And welcome back to the program, Fred.

FRED KAPLAN (Slate): Thanks. Good to be here.

BRAND: And, Fred, not so long ago, we may all recall that President Bush called North Korea one of the three points of his axis of evil. What were the hurdles that had to be overcome to get to this point?

KAPLAN: Well, that was one of them; I mean, just a question of attitude on both sides. For the past year or longer, the Bush administration has said, `We're not going to sit down and talk with you until you promise to get rid of your nukes first.' North Koreans have said, `We're not going to say anything about our nukes. We're not going to sit down and talk with you until you drop your hostile policy.' And basically, both sides in the past few weeks have found a face-saving way to move to the table without those preconditions being satisfied first. It's, you know, getting past the high school nya-nya and moving on to real diplomacy.

BRAND: So both sides have made some concessions. Let's start with the Bush administration's side. What changed there?

KAPLAN: Well, a big part of it was the second term and the ascendency of Condoleezza Rice into secretary of State. In the first administration, Secretary of State Colin Powell tried to get negotiations restarted with North Korea, but he was outgunned and outflanked by Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld. It's unclear as yet how far Secretary Rice will go to get an agreement, but she does seem very interested in engaging and she has President Bush's ear. And so the talks are on, and some professional diplomats are involved in them. So a big part of it is the second term of the Bush administration and the realignment toward a more diplomatically oriented foreign policy.

BRAND: Now she said yesterday that a big part of it was also the South Koreans agreeing to provide electricity to North Korea.

KAPLAN: Well, that was part of it. Basically, for a couple of years now, ever since this crisis began in late 2002, the North Koreans have said that they will halt their nuclear program again under two conditions: one, that the United States give them security assurances, that we respect their sovereignty and are not going to attack them; two, that some energy assistance is provided. This is basically--they're asking for a resumption of an agreement that they signed with President Clinton in 1994, and those were the two parts. First-term Bush refused to do either one. Second-term Bush, we're doing the security; South Korea has agreed to provide the electricity.

BRAND: So, Fred, it still remains to be seen whether or not North Korea will decide to go along with these proposals and actually halt its nuclear program.

KAPLAN: Well, that's right. I mean, this is the beginning; it's not the end. North Koreans have a very peculiar style of negotiation. It's maddening; it's frustrating. This rather limited agreement that the Clinton administration signed in '94, it took 50 negotiating sessions to get to that point. And, you know, at that time, they had the fuel rods to make plutonium locked up. Now they've been reprocessed into plutonium; they may have already produced some nuclear weapons. It's an extremely secretive society. How are you going to verify a treaty if we do get around to signing one? So, yeah, the challenges have really just begun.

BRAND: Opinion and analysis from Fred Kaplan. He writes on military affairs for the online magazine Slate, our partners.

Thank you, Fred.

KAPLAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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