With North Korea, two can’t work without six

I’ve been on vacation for the past week-plus, so I missed the (admittedly not very “new”) news that North Korea wants to join “a specific and reserved form of dialogue” — in other words, the bilateral talks with the United States that Pyongyang has long sought.

Is this business as usual with North Korean diplomacy, is it the strategic counterweight to its past couple months of brazen missile launches, or is it, as FP’s Brian Fung suggested, “a unique opportunity” for making progress?

I respect Brian’s points — that the six-party talks haven’t been too successful, that the resulting stalemate may have benefitted North Korea’s cause, and that the specific aims of the other five parties have been frustratingly divergent — but I’m not as open to his conclusion. Not that I support the misguided notion that meeting with the leaders of nefarious countries should be held out as some kind of “reward;” that’s nonsense, as I’ve blogged previously. But one should be a bit suspicious before acceding to exactly what North Korea wants — particularly when, as in this case, the issue is actually one of excluding other parties, not whether or not to conduct diplomacy.

Going at the North Korean nuclear issue through the six-party talks is the only acceptable option here for precisely the reason that the relevant actors — China, the United States, South Korea, Japan, and Russia — are “working at cross-purposes” on seemingly everything else. In other words, North Korea’s nuclear program is the only thing they do agree on — namely, that Pyongyang should not be in possession of nuclear weapons. North Korea, of course, feels differently, but backing out of the six-party talks would be as short-sighted as has been the U.S. policy of insisting on North Korean disarmament before any concessions are made. Bilateral negotiations aren’t a concession, but the only way I see them working is as part of a communicative regional strategy.

(Maybe North Korea’s real purpose in seeking bilateral talks with the United States is to gain the know-how to upgrade its fastfood offerings from “minced beef and bread” to a verifiable hamburger.)