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BRUSSELS — After a 15-month hiatus, North Korea will return to Beijing in December for resumption of the China-brokered six-party talks with the two Koreas, the United States, Japan and Rus- sia in attendance. Yet unless U.S. President George W. Bush makes a sharp turn of direction, prospects for a solution are bleak. The North is set to return to talks it abandoned in late 2005 following the so-called breakthrough with the Sept. 19 Joint Statement. In fact, the statement papered over an enormous division between the two main protagonists.

“Complete, verifiable, irreversible disarmament” will be acceptable to Pyongyang only in exchange for an end to U.S. hostility and a new indigenous supply of electrical power.

For the North, any reference to an appropriate time for negotiations on a nuclear-power supply means “now,” while the U.S. reads “never.”

From North Korea’s perspective, the U.S. has demonstrated continued hostility and unilateralism, including forcing the North’s bank of choice in Macau to freeze its assets on the grounds the North was laundering money.

So, on Oct. 9 the North partially demonstrated its nuclear credentials with a whimper of an underground nuclear test instead of a bang. The blast of 1,000 tons of TNT was a quarter of that forecast. Still, it suggested to the world that the North had the necessary amount of plutonium and the technology to use it.

The U.S. claims that U.N. Security Council Resolution 1718, which imposed a further tier of sanctions against Pyongyang on top of the half-century-long U.S. embargo and recent financial freeze, has forced the North back to the table. In reality, a mix of Chinese anger, the North’s demonstration of its nuclear capability in an effort to up the ante, and U.S. concessions has brought the North back.

The thronging Tong Il food market shows little sign of panic buying. For its part, the U.S. has agreed to establish a working group to remove the unilateral financial sanctions. The problem is that while this development will keep the North at the table, it does little to close the gap between the two sides.

As an “axis of evil” country that coincidentally had a high-level delegation in Tehran in mid-November meeting with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — one of the more enthusiastic consumers of its short- and medium-range missiles — the North will have to be convinced that the U.S. leopard has changed its spots. It is looking for a complete, verifiable, irreversible suspension of U.S. hostility — both military and economic — plus a nuclear package deal. Neither can be the result of a bilateral accord.

Pyongyang and Washington agree on one thing: Neither can trust the other. And they’re both right. The nuclear package could be put together with South Korean money, Russian technology and Chinese political will. The South is too petrified of a shotgun reunification to do otherwise.

As for the Chinese, they want to avoid a regional arms race, which could be triggered if, in response to the North Korean “threat,” Japan went ahead and deployed theater missile defense. This would neutralize China’s offensive capability, forcing it to multiply its arsenal of 20 ICBMs and probably fit them with multiple independent re-entry vehicles.

With a booming civilian economy about to make the global grade, the last thing the Chinese want is a repeat of the late 1960s when, in response to the threat from the Soviet Union, they increased military spending by 80 percent between 1968 and 1971, seriously distorting the economy and slowing recovery from the chaos of the Cultural Revolution.

While the rest of the world realizes the dangers of a misstep on the Korean Peninsula, powerful forces in Tokyo and Washington want the sword of Damocles to hang a little longer. In Japan, a revision of the U.S.-imposed Constitution to remove the “peace” clause will only work with a fearful public, and North Korea provides that fear. U.S. politicians and the military-industrial complex jockey to sell “star wars” technology.

One way to tame U.S. hostility is to provide multiple guarantors of any settlement. The clever thing for China and the two Koreas to do would be to widen rather than narrow the number of participants in the six-party talks, even if they only had observer status initially. This might force Japan and the U.S. to end their procrastination as well as give the North Koreans the confidence to start the long march toward a comprehensive settlement.

First on the invitation list should be the European Union. As Pyongyang’s most serious interlocutor and provider of half a billion euros in financial assistance over the past few years, the EU has the financial and political muscle to make the difference.

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