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North Korea has honed erratic negotiating behavior to an art

BEIJING—Make outlandish demands. Appear unyielding. Threaten to bolt at the slightest provocation.

These vintage tactics are once again on display as North Korea, this time a nuclear power, sits down for international talks over its nuclear program.

Observers say that although North Korean negotiators can appear erratic and unpredictable, they generally stick to calibrated patterns of brinksmanship. These include escalating a mood of crisis, demanding last-minute concessions and unilaterally reinterpreting past accords.

"There's a tendency toward bluff, bluster, threats, (and) taking maximal positions, particularly in the public portion of the negotiations," said Scott Snyder, a Washington-based Korea expert and the author of "Negotiating on the Edge: North Korea Negotiating Behavior."

The open-ended six-nation talks that got under way in the Chinese capital on Monday follow North Korea's Oct. 9 nuclear test and appear to be the last hope for a diplomatic resolution to the Korean Peninsula nuclear crisis. North Korea, the world's most rigid totalitarian state, is believed to have as many as 10 nuclear weapons.

U.S. negotiators have been haggling with North Korea since the early 1990s, so experiences are rich—but success is not.

"Nobody has ever effectively countered their negotiating style. That's why we're in the mess we're in," said Ralph A. Cossa, head of the Honolulu-based Pacific Forum of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a policy institute.

China, as host of the on-again, off-again talks, which began in 2003, is trying to mediate between the United States and North Korea. Russia, Japan and South Korea are also participants.

Sticking to past pattern, North Korea's chief envoy, Kim Kye-gwan, began the talks Monday with sweeping demands that all international sanctions be lifted against his nation before there could be any discussion of nuclear disarmament.

"They basically demand everything but the kitchen sink, and they are not offering much in return so far," Snyder said. "It helps to shape the field of negotiation to their advantage."

Experts say it's important to distinguish between public and private sessions and different stages of negotiation. Sensitive to any appearance of weakness, North Koreans signal possible compromise only behind closed doors and well into the talks.

"A lot of times, the North Koreans will be very demanding at the outset, then negotiating seriously at the middle stage," said Wade L. Huntley, an expert on nuclear proliferation at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. "Then at the last stage, they'll come to the table with a fresh set of demands, with hope that the other side will be so ready for an agreement that they'll make new concessions."

By Tuesday, all sides, including the North Koreans, appeared to be burrowing in for protracted talks.

"There was certainly a willingness to listen to and engage with some of our ideas," Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, the lead U.S. envoy, said late Tuesday.

North Korea may be famine-stricken and short of energy, but its envoys trump their American counterparts in experience at these negotiations.

Kim, the chief envoy, has been haggling with U.S. delegates since the early 1990s, when North Korea agreed to freeze its plutonium enrichment program. Li Gun, the deputy director general of the America Affairs bureau, is also a veteran of previous talks.

"They've been working the issue 15 years with the United States. They know the record cold," Snyder said.

Washington has had a string of different envoys, first under the Clinton administration, then under President Bush. Hill, the U.S. negotiator, is in his second year in the job.

Even as negotiations deepen, it isn't always easy for the U.S. side to fathom the North Korean negotiators.

"Part of the time, the reason they are erratic or the reason they shuffle back and forth is that they haven't actually made up their minds," Huntley said. Their erratic behavior "may be a calculated posture, but it may reflect the internal dynamics of the regime."

The North Korean side must constantly look back to Pyongyang for hand signals on the negotiations, and any slip-up can redound severely for the negotiators.

Arriving late is also a North Korean pattern, as Hill found out earlier in the week when U.S. financial experts were prepared to begin sideline talks with their North Korean counterparts on U.S. economic sanctions. The Korean side was a no-show for a day. Those talks finally took place Tuesday afternoon.

"They are constantly doing this, especially in their meetings with the South Koreans," said Cossa. "They set a date for a meeting, then 24 hours beforehand they say they can't come. ... They just jerk the other side around."

The Chinese brush aside any such complaints, saying tactics are to be expected.

"Don't be too upset at this kind of tough bargaining position at the very beginning," Pan Zhenqiang, a retired Chinese general and international affairs commentator, told state television. The talks, he added, are just getting started.

Others say, though, that it isn't beyond the North Koreans to trigger a crisis during negotiations, perhaps by letting a barrage of missiles fly as they did last July.

They are "very willing to provoke dangerous situations, partly because they believe they are less risk-averse than their adversaries," Huntley said.

Even when a deal is cut, North Korea is likely to exploit any ambiguity left in the text. That occurred in September 2005, when the six-party talks arrived at a breakthrough accord in which Pyongyang agreed to nuclear disarmament in exchange for not-yet-specified assistance and security guarantees.

At the last minute, as pens were poised above the accord, North Korea insisted on including a provision about its right to peaceful use of nuclear energy. The United States ceded the provision, and within a day a spat began over contradictory interpretations.

Snyder said there's likely only one certain outcome for U.S. negotiators.

"You should always prepare to be disappointed," Snyder said. "I can't tell you how many times in negotiations people from the State Department have said, `We're almost there!'"

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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