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Committee Hearing Calls for Direct Talks with North Korea

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The House Committee on International Relations held a hearing Wednesday on the administration’s preparation for six-party talks with North Korea. Rep. Tom Lantos (D- CA), the anticipated future committee chair, used the hearing to harshly criticize the Bush administration’s failure to directly engage with North Korea and call for bilateral negotiations to diffuse the current nuclear crisis.

Analysts at the Center for American Progress have been urging just this course of action for some time. Senior Vice President for National Security Joseph Cirincione wrote on the day of North Korea’s nuclear test that “Any strategy must end with a negotiated solution.” Cirincione also argued earlier this month that “President Bush must end his administration’s internal policy paralysis and back a new, final push for a deal with North Korea.”

Tom Lantos aptly stated at the hearing that in the wake of North Korea’s forced entry into the nuclear club, “it is now abundantly clear to the world that our current policies have failed.” This failure is clearly illustrated in the Center for American Progress’ North Korea nuclear timeline, which lines up the progression of North Korea’s nuclear program with changes in U.S. foreign policy over time.

The administration’s policy relies heavily on six-party talks. Gary Samore, Director of Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and other experts agree that there is little hope that six-party talks alone will bring about an agreement.

Lantos and other House progressives want Assistant Secretary of State Chris Hill to meet with North Korea to assure them of “our peaceful intent.” Congress must begin urging the president to do this now before we embark into a potentially even more worrisome leg of the timeline.

Others on the committee, like Rep. Jim Leach (R-IA), agree with Lantos’ argument that bilateral negotiations are crucial, but not the only tool the administration should use to stop the North’s nuclear program. Leach told Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns at the hearing, “I believe you set up a bit of a straw-man argument. I know of no serious commentator or observer of North Korea that favors solely bilateral discussions, which is the way you phrased it.” Leach also said that Assistant Secretary Hill can meet only with North Korean diplomats who are too low-level to make real decisions, adding, “I don’t understand why it is in the United States’ interest to keep [North Korea] isolated.”

There is now a broad consensus that the United States must engage North Korea in bilateral negotiations as part of a larger negotiation process. Former Ambassador and Dean of the Georgetown School of Foreign Service Robert Gallucci believes that the Bush administration’s North Korean policy “has failed to secure the nation’s interest.” Arms Control Association’s executive director, Daryl Kimball, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies senior advisor, Michael Green, also urge direct talks as part any solution to the North Korean nuclear program.

As the calls for bilateral negotiations increase, it is clear that direct negotiations are not a partisan issue, but rather the only feasible option to deal with the threat of a nuclear Korean peninsula. As Lantos said, “The administration’s refusal to allow visits by American diplomats to North Korea must end, and it must end now.”

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