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HONOLULU — Will the United States and North Korea ever sit down and talk? In all probability, yes. But the odds remain strong that the dialogue, when and if it happens, will largely remain a dialogue of the deaf.

The June 29 North-South Korea naval engagement, which resulted in the deaths of five South Korean sailors and an unknown number of North Korean sailors (estimates range to 30) dead or missing, rightfully delayed the beginning of U.S.-North Korean dialogue that had tentatively been scheduled for July 10. But it is important to note that the naval clash was not the only, or even the primary, reason given for the postponement.

The July 2 U.S. State Department announcement rescinding Washington’s offer to send Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia James Kelly to Pyongyang cited the lack of a timely response to its offer as well as the “unacceptable atmosphere” created by the North-South naval engagement. This sent two clear signals. First, North Korea’s behavior toward the South affects U.S.-North Korean talks. Second, Washington is not going to tolerate the unprofessional diplomatic behavior that has long characterized interaction between Pyongyang and Seoul.

Pyongyang frequently makes Seoul wait until the last minute (or beyond) before responding to South Korean initiatives, as Seoul seemingly pleads for a response and continues to adjust to the North’s inconsiderate whims. Washington, it appears, will not play this game.

The next time Washington offers to send a high-level emissary, Pyongyang needs to respond promptly and directly, in accordance with standard diplomatic protocol.

The next U.S. offer may come later this month when the region’s foreign ministers gather in Brunei July 31 for the annual Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum Meeting. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is scheduled to attend, as is South Korean Foreign Minister Choi Sung Hong and (presumably) North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun.

Of course, whether Paek will show up remains anyone’s guess; he inexplicably skipped last year’s meeting in Hanoi, avoiding what would otherwise have been the first direct high-level North Korean contact with a senior Bush administration official. His absence again this year will, in and of itself, speak volumes about Pyongyang’s willingness to engage in serious dialogue, not only with Washington and Seoul, but with its other Asian neighbors as well.

Even if the two sides agree eventually to sit down and talk — Washington’s “any time, any place, without preconditions” offer to talk reportedly remains on the table — the negotiations appear destined to be unpleasant. In a little-noticed speech on America’s East Asia policy in early June, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell laid some specific prerequisites for progress that may further reduce Pyongyang’s incentive to begin a dialogue with the Bush administration. While none of Powell’s prerequisites were particularly surprising, and all have been mentioned before, his June 10 speech to the Asia Society in New York seems to cast them in stone.

Powell stated explicitly that “progress between us will depend on Pyongyang’s behavior on a number of key issues.” More specifically (to paraphrase), Powell insists that the North:

* must get out of the proliferation business and eliminate long-range missiles that threaten others;

* must make a much more serious effort to provide for its suffering citizens (to include greatly improved monitoring and access to insure the food provided by Washington and others gets into hungry mouths);

* needs to move toward a less threatening conventional military posture (by living up to its past pledges to implement basic confidence-building measures with the South); and

* must come into full compliance with International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards (as called for in the Geneva Agreed Framework, which Washington remains committed to following, according to Powell).

This appears to represent yet another hardening of Washington’s position; at a minimum, it places “without preconditions” in a new context. Powell’s remarks should leave few illusions about Washington’s determination to hold a “comprehensive” dialogue that addresses all of its Korean Peninsula security concerns. On the positive side, at least it does not draw any further links between North Korea and Washington’s war on terrorism, U.S. President George W. Bush’s earlier “axis of evil” comments notwithstanding.

Of course, Pyongyang is no stranger to prerequisites; it has a number of its own, including a withdrawal of all U.S. forces from the Peninsula, and has traditionally been quite unyielding when it comes to dialogue either with Washington or Seoul on this point. Earlier this month, it added an interesting new demand, insisting that Seoul tear down the statue of Gen. Douglas MacArthur that proudly commemorates his 1950 landing in Inchon, which Pyongyang claims represents an “insult” to the Korean people.

Pyongyang also seems more comfortable blaming Washington for everything that happens than it does discussing ways to avoid crises and misunderstandings. It claims Washington “orchestrated” the naval incident and has demanded an apology for U.S. “backstage manipulation” of the incident.

Unless both sides are prepared to move beyond their seemingly unyielding positions, the prospects of meaningful future dialogue appears slim. All eyes will be on Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, first to see if Paek indeed shows up and then to see if the two ministers can set a more positive tone for future dialogue than the one that exists.

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