Why was the entire issue of bilateral talks versus six-way talks so contentious? Why has so much diplomatic ammunition on both sides been expended about something which seems so unimportant?
There are two aspects to it. First, if the talks had been solely between NK and the US, that would amount to acceptance by the US before the talks even began that it was primarily responsible for making a settlement, which would give NK a stronger position to try to extort concessions from us. But that's not the real point.
This has been a size-and-shape-of-the-table discussion. The apparent issue was a smokescreen for something far more important. What was really going on was a struggle of wills to see just who was actually more desperate, and who would have the upper hand in negotiations once they actually began. After months of standoff, someone's determination finally cracked.
But I don't think it was the Kim government. I think it was the Chinese. I think the Chinese leadership has finally accepted that North Korea is the problem, and that it can only be solved if China helps apply pressure to NK. They have finally accepted that Bush isn't going to back down, so their only way to avert catastrophe now is to force North Korea to back down. As distasteful and perilous as that might be, it's now the least bad of their many bad alternatives. The NK announcement went too far for the Chinese leadership.
There's really no other way to explain why the stated policy of NK changed so radically in such a short time. A change from monumental pugnaciousness to a major concession in just one week could only really have happened if someone capable of applying intolerable pressure actually did so, and only the Chinese have that ability.
Which means that this announcement by North Korea abandoning its demand for bilateral talks and accepting six-way talks is actually a major diplomatic triumph for the Bush administration, because it means they've finally reached the Chinese.
Steven has a lot of historical background at the outset of the post that puts the recent developments in a far better context. I have to say that N. Korea is the sole aspect of Bush's policy, both domestic and foreign, that I do actually give him kudos for, and that I don't think are hypocritical, ideological, or ultimately harmful to US interests. Since i value resolution of the N. Korean situation almost dead last on the scale of my priorities, I'm not exactly a single-issue voter on the topic, and this doesn't change my absolute intention to boot bush out of office. But I do think that Bush has set a wonderful standard for dealing with the gibbering-lunatic flavor of dictator, one that is even more robust given that for once the situation there is not the result of some flawed foreign policy enacted by a previous Republican (as is the situation in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan...).
Mr. President - you've done well. Kudos.
In fact my own preferred candidate, Howard Dean, has been fairly hawkish on N. Korea in a way that Bush has not. Im not exactly worried, I bet Bush will have NK wrapped up by the time he gets his head handed him on a platter in 2004. And if not, well, Steven's done a bang-up job convincing me that NK is really China's problem.
And China is going to be our real problem, long term...