CAMBRIDGE, England — Caught in the crossfire of the first presidential debate between U.S. President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry, most Americans were likely taken aback by Korea’s prominence and prospects.

While it is highly unlikely that the positions of either candidate will affect the outcome of the election itself, they may very well have a decisive bearing on the resolution of the current nuclear impasse.

The United States and North Korea have been negotiating over the North’s nuclear-fuel reprocessing and its program for acquiring weapons of mass destruction for a decade — during which only one agreement (the Agreed Framework) was reached, partially implemented and broken by both sides.

While the North engaged in a surreptitious uranium-enrichment program, the attack on the Agreed Framework by conservative members of Congress perhaps caused Pyongyang to be more receptive to the entreaties of Pakistan’s Q. Khan than it otherwise might have been. And due to Republican opposition, the Clinton administration was never able to remove congressionally imposed economic sanctions dating from the Korean War.

The U.S. and North Korea did not succeed with confidence-building measures in a multilateral framework during Four Party talks (including China and South Korea) from 1997 to 1999.

Clearly, no matter how many parties take part — two, four or six, and possibly more in the future — Washington and Pyongyang must do the heavy lifting. Therefore, as Kerry advocated, they must engage each other directly and substantively, for only the U.S. can threaten the North with devastation and only the North poses a wild card — a proliferation threat.

By contrast, Bush’s assertion that six-party talks would evaporate if the U.S agreed to talks directly with the North is erroneous. In fact, South Korea, Russia, China and Japan have urged the U.S. to re-enter the dialogue.

As for the six-party format, it was conceived as an alternative to bilateral talks but was not seriously thought through. To make it workable requires more than just a conclave every three months to exchange views and positions. There must be agreement on how to achieve the ultimate goal of making the Korean Peninsula nuclear free. That will require a division of labor and a series of quid pro quos.

In this regard, the various parties bring different strengths to the table as well as different interests. For example, Russia should take the lead, as it already has, in offering to refurbish the North’s decrepit energy grid and upgrade its railroad system and infrastructure. Similarly, China and South Korea, the North’s two largest aid donors and trading partners, should focus on economic assistance, while the U.S deals with the form and content of security assurances.

There is a major substantive hurdle to overcome: North Korea’s willingness to freeze its program and the U.S demand that it commit to dismantling it before any aid can flow. The North is willing to return to the status quo ante while the U.S. demands nothing less than a new beginning. Thus far, attempts to parse the difference have proved futile, although the North has fudged the difference between a freeze for compensation and a freeze leading to dismantlement.

The general outlines and specific elements of a so-called grand bargain have been evident for some time. This includes the North’s ending its WMD programs in exchange for large-scale economic assistance and diplomatic recognition, its removal from various embargoes and the U.S. State Department’s terrorist list as well as formal security assurances that the U.S would not undertake hostile action against it. However, negotiating such an ambitious agenda would require the parties to meet not just once every three months but every day for three months to hammer out the details.

Such meetings would require plenary session and private sessions plus additional participants, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency, which would have the key role in monitoring compliance with North Korea’s end of the bargain, and the European Union which collectively is the largest aid donor outside of South Korea, the U.S. and China.

So the way forward may involve an expansion to an eight-party format, reserving a seat for a U.N. representative as well, if replacing the armistice with a peace treaty were to be discussed since the Korean War Armistice was signed in the name of the U.N. forces by the U.S.-controlled U.N. Command.

On the other hand, the way forward might also involve a retrograde movement to the Security Council in the event that Pyongyang continues to boycott the six-party talks. This represents China’s ultimate leverage over the North that Bush referred to but exaggerated. In fact, Beijing’s leverage is extremely limited according to most knowledgeable sources. Whether China would actually implement an embargo is highly doubtful since the North constitutes a buffer zone in security terms.

In sum, neither bilateral nor multilateral talks are problem free. Bilaterally, trust is in short supply or nonexistent. Further, the North Koreans have stiffed successive U.S. negotiators, ranging from Ambassador Charles Kartman to former Defense Secretary William Perry, who was kept waiting for more than a year on his offer to engage.

At the same time, expediency rather than consistency has characterized the Bush administration’s approach. The agreement the North broke was the same one it initially opposed and later embraced with great reluctance.

Nor is the Bush administration’s record at the six-party talks much to boast about. It took the better part of a year to table a meaningful proposal and only after the other parties made it clear that the talks were going nowhere. This calls into question just how committed it is to a multilateral approach or whether it views it more as a facade than a venue for genuine deliberation. This needs to change.

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