For the third time in 10 months, diplomats from six countries returned to the negotiating table in Beijing on June 23 to try and reach an agreement on dismantling North Korea's nuclear programs -- which Washington fears could soon be capable of producing a nuclear bomb a month. The Bush Administration had pushed hard for the so-called six-party talks as a way to pressure Pyongyang.
But it turned out that much of the pressure was on Washington. With China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea increasingly uneasy about what they saw as President George W. Bush's inflexibility, the Administration ran the risk of losing control of the talks. The result: a surprise U.S. proposal that lays out for the North the benefits of abandoning its nukes. "The Administration is concerned that China, South Korea, and Japan may be forming a little group without the U.S. and that this might make it difficult for us to retain influence in the region," says Ezra F. Vogel, a Harvard University Asia expert.
The proposal would provide North Korea with security assurances from the U.S. and a resumption of heavy-fuel oil shipments from allies in return for progress by Pyongyang toward a "complete, verifiable, and irreversible" dismantling of the nuclear sites. The country would have three months to shut its nuclear facilities, or aid could be stopped.
The blueprint marks a sharp reversal for Washington, which had demanded that Pyongyang agree to jettison its nukes before the U.S. specified what benefits that would bring. North Korea had insisted on knowing Washington's quid pro quo in advance. Agreeing with Pyongyang, the other parties pressed Bush for a road map for a pact and struck economic deals with the North on their own. Even Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi -- up to now the staunchest backer of Bush's tough policy -- obliquely told the President at the June Group of Eight summit that he should offer carrots to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
The American hard line in the talks, plus the war in Iraq, have eroded Uncle Sam's position in the Pacific. China is winning kudos for playing peacemaker in Korea and easing tensions with Japan and India. "[The Chinese] are eating our lunch," says Francis Fukuyama, a former State Dept. official and now professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. In South Korea, anti-U.S. sentiment is sure to rise after Iraqis beheaded a South Korean translator on June 22. The barbaric act punished the government of Roh Moo Hyun for reaffirming plans to send an extra 3,000 troops to Iraq. Roh may have other reasons for resenting Washington: Some analysts believe the U.S. abruptly decided to withdraw a third of its force from Korea to rebuke Roh for his softer stance toward Pyongyang.
Washington's reversal on North Korea could help heal these wounds and pay dividends at home as well. It may defuse criticism that once Pyongyang kicked out weapons inspectors, U.S. stone-walling enabled the North to expand its nuclear arsenal without constraints. The tactical shift puts the burden on Kim to end a program that has given him power and legitimacy. No one knows if he will. But Bush just cut the odds that he will be blamed if the talks end in failure. And he may have slowed the erosion of U.S. influence in Asia.
By Stan Crock in Washington, with Moon Ihlwan in Seoul and Dexter Roberts in Beijing