On-Again, Off-Again N. Korea Nuclear Talks Resume

After 13 months of silence, U.S. and North Korean officials met this week as part of revived six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear plans. Jack Pritchard, former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea, offers perspective on the talks.

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Top US and North Korean negotiators have held a series of bilateral meetings in Beijing this week. Since 2000, the Bush administration has resisted direct talks with North Korea. This week's meetings occurred against the backdrop of six-party talks that continue into the weekend. Jack Pritchard is former US ambassador to South Korea and lead negotiator in the six-party process with North Korea. He's now a visiting fellow at The Brookings Institution and joins us in our studios.

Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. JACK PRITCHARD (Former Ambassador to South Korea): My pleasure.

SIMON: Now these six-party talks--we should list them: China, Russia, North Korea, South Korea, Japan and the US--are continuing. Is this a good sign?

Mr. PRITCHARD: It is. The last round of talks was held in June of 2004, but some changes that have occurred have led to a resumption of talks this week.

SIMON: What are those changes?

Mr. PRITCHARD: Well, on the US side, first and foremost, has been an administration recognition that their policies the past three or four years on North Korea just have not worked. And the second change is the switch from Condoleezza Rice from the national security adviser to secretary of State. She enjoys an enormously close relationship with the president, and so she has a great deal of ability to maneuver in this area that Secretary Powell didn't have. And she's using it, I would say, somewhat wisely now.

SIMON: What about changes in North Korea?

Mr. PRITCHARD: In February, we saw the North Koreans declare publicly that they were a nuclear weapons state. That upset a lot of people, particularly the South Koreans. It upset the Chinese. They walked that back a little bit in their March statement, saying, well, perhaps they would be prepared to continue talks. But it wasn't until June when the North Koreans, under constant pressure by the Chinese, finally said, you know, denuclearization really was the deathbed wish of the former president or Kim Il Sung, and they take that seriously, and given the right set of circumstances they would come back to talks.

SIMON: Whether they're two- or six-party talks, how do you resolve what seems to me the fundamental difference between the American feeling that dismantling the weapons program should come first and then aid and the North Korean feeling that aid comes first and then we'll dismantle the weapons?

Mr. PRITCHARD: Well, that's what negotiations are all about. For the US, clearly, what they'd like to have is the North Koreans simply say, `You're right. Here are our nuclear weapons. We'll give them all up and then we'll just wait to see what kind of reward we get for doing that.' For the North Koreans, it's quite important to do this in a sequenced manner to see, `Is the United States serious about this or are they simply just trying to take away the weapons from them?'

SIMON: Can you give us some idea of what it's like to be in a room with North Korean negotiators?

Mr. PRITCHARD: My first serious encounter--and I spent 11 hours in the same room with the North Koreans. It is tough business. They've got long memories. Bring something up that you think is a new idea, they'll kind of purse their lips and look at you and say, `But we've heard that before four years ago.' And they'll flip through their notes and say, `Here's so and so who said this, and this is what he meant then. Now what do you mean by this?' So they're a tough bunch to negotiate with. They know that they're doing. They're reasonably rational.

SIMON: And do they talk about the dear leader?

Mr. PRITCHARD: You know, occasionally, you get a speech that invokes the dear leader's name or they begin to give you some kind of speech and you say, `You know, wait. I'll stipulate that I heard what you're going to say, and you stipulate that you said it and let's just move on to something of substance.' And they'll smile and then we get down to business.

SIMON: Well, we stipulate it's nice talking to you again, Mr. Pritchard.

Mr. PRITCHARD: My pleasure.

SIMON: Jack Pritchard, currently a visiting fellow at The Brookings Institution.

And it's 18 minutes past the hour.

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