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Friday, September 05, 2003

The North Korean Diplo-Comedy

When last we looked, North Korea was "softening its stance" after the last round of talks, and the Chinese were deploring US inflexibility.

But wait - now, US officials, speaking on deepest, darkest background, explain that the US had abandoned its previously stated policies and was, in fact showing a new flexibility at the recent talks:

U.S. Said to Shift Approach in Talks With North Korea

WASHINGTON, Sept. 4 — President Bush, in a significant shift in his approach to North Korea, authorized American negotiators to say last week that he is prepared to take a range of steps to aid the starving nation — from gradually easing sanctions to an eventual peace treaty, senior officials today.

The proposals were described to the North Koreans at the talks, which were held in Beijing last week. They constituted a major departure from the official White House statements earlier this year that North Korea would see no benefits from a new relationship until it shipped all its weapons out of the country and dismantled all of its nuclear facilities.

Ask it with me - if we made what sounds like a major break from our past position, why the non-response from the North Koreans? Why the cool words from the Chinese?

Mystery solved!

After Mr. Kelly laid out the American proposal, the North Korean delegation said the United States was seeking to strangle North Korea, and was secretly considering a pre-emptive strike.

Russian officials who attended the talks suggested that the North Koreans had not been listening to Mr. Kelly's presentation.

"Sometimes their script seemed to be couched in assumptions about what we were going to say," an American official said, "not what we did say."

In recent days China has publicly chastised the Bush administration for not showing enough flexibility. China's vice foreign minister, Wang Yi, who acted as the host of the six-nation talks, said earlier this week the United States "is the main obstacle" to any settlement.

In private, American officials insisted that the Chinese were simply trying to demonstrate to the North Koreans that they were willing to pressure both sides.

Well, that is reassuring - the North Koreans can't pay attention, and the Chinese are posturing. Those inscrutable Asians. The NY Times does not fully explore a third possibility, that this is a new Administration spin offensive. Certainly, this story seems connected to the "Powell up, Rumsfeld down" leaking of the Iraq coverage.

If this new information is part of an Administration attempt to charm us, I should not make light of the sourcing. The WaPo buries the same story on page A18, and tells us that it was a "senior State Department official, briefing reporters yesterday".

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