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     Mar 3, 2005
Some good signs in North Korean crisis
By Jaewoo Choo

SEOUL - South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun still seeks to engage bellicose North Korea, which claims to have nuclear arms and spurns disarmament talks, but he has won kudos for a recent national address in which he promised to uphold his stated principles that Pyongyang's possession of nuclear weapons would not be tolerated.

He promised to be flexible - something that has worried Western observers - but he emphasized the need for a peaceful settlement of the North Korean nuclear crisis and emphasized that Seoul would play an active role in finding a peaceful solution.

Representatives from Seoul, Tokyo and Washington recently met to discuss how to persuade Pyongyang to rejoin talks on the nuclear issue. Political observers here say that South Korea and the United States, sometimes at odds over foreign policy and North Korea, were more conciliatory than in the past. And they point to the appointment of Ambassador to Seoul Christopher H Hill as Washington's top negotiator as a good sign that the US may become more involved and flexible.

Roh failed to deliver any new or more detailed plans to defuse the nuclear standoff in his speech last Friday. He re-emphasized the importance of resuming the six-party talks aimed at defusing the North Korean nuclear crisis by saying that "the fundamental structure has not changed greatly, though an unexpected situation has been brought about". He went on to say, "I will deal with the issue calmly, based on our consistent principles, without being swayed by one incident after another. I will have flexibility but will not lose the principles."

After the speech, the Korean stock market surged to 1,000 points for the first time in five years. At a meeting on Saturday of the three chief negotiators on the North Korean nuclear problem (Seoul, Tokyo and Washington), the South Korean representative seemed to be more cooperative than in the past with his American and Japanese counterparts. The meeting of the three was convened in Seoul after the return from North Korea of a special Chinese delegation, led by Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Jiarui, to coordinate North Korean policies. China has been urging North Korea to return to the negotiating table.

While Japan made it clear that it would like to consider tougher measures, including economic sanctions, to be put forward against the North, both Seoul and Washington urged Tokyo to step carefully. They also rekindled their cooperative spirit. Japan now seems to have put off major sanctions (connected with North Korea's abduction of its citizens), lest such punishment would give North Korea another reason to stay away from the talks. It has, however, required that all ships of all flags entering Japanese waters carry hefty insurance - beyond that carried by most North Korean ships. While not being specifically directed at North Korea or even mentioning Pyongyang, it will have the effect of curtailing North Korea's maritime traffic, or making it more costly, in a kind of de facto sanction. It went into effect last Tuesday.

Nevertheless, resumption of the six-party talks still appears elusive, although North Korea has said it might return under certain conditions. Chinese Foreign Minister Li Jiaoxing and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice discussed by telephone North Korea's stated willingness to rejoin the talks. Two factors need to be addressed first.

One concerns what China - host of the six-party talks and North Korea's closest ally - will do to induce Pyongyang to return to the negotiating table. The other is what the US will do to create the "mature conditions" for meaningful negotiations, as insisted upon by Pyongyang. These conditions were said to be that the US should not criticize the communist regime or interfere in its internal affairs - apparent references to North Korea's anger at Rice for calling Pyongyang an "outpost of tyranny" and the US Congress's North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004, intended to help defectors from the country and those who help them escape.

It might be wishful thinking based upon some educated speculation, but it appears from recent developments that there could be a change in tactics by the US and China in order to realize a fourth round of the six-party talks. China certainly will have to rely on its long-standing leverage of providing economic aid and assistance, but it will have to rely more on the US for political support. In China, ever since North Korea's public admission on February 10 to having nuclear weapons, the websites of Pyongyang-controlled media are hostile and filled with a sense of betrayal. Many Chinese are also critical of what they consider to be their government's appeasement policy toward Pyongyang. Against this backdrop, the leadership in Beijing is on the horns of a dilemma that only can be overcome by political support from Washington, especially if Washington moderates its heretofore inflexible policy toward North Korea.

Perhaps cognizant of Beijing's current dilemma, Washington appears to be shifting its tactics, at least from what can be observed on the surface. After the meeting by the chief negotiators of Japan and South Korea, Ambassador Hill, the US representative, said, "We have a full intention to meet North Korean representatives separately and discuss if it is within the framework of the six-party talks." Indeed, if and when the bilateral meeting is realized, it would be a landmark shift by the US, which has been unyielding to date, rejecting separate talks with North Korea, something Pyongyang urgently wants. A bilateral meeting could facilitate the "mature conditions" demanded by Pyongyang. Furthermore, if bilateral talks take place, especially in the context of the Beijing-hosted talks, it would be a big boost to the Chinese leadership, justifying its economic cost in aiding Pyongyang in exchange for major political gain.

The United States' apparent willingness to hold a bilateral meeting is reinforced by its appointment of Hill to be the chief negotiator at the six-party talks. The key negotiating position was previously held by assistant secretary of state James Kelly. The new appointment conveys how seriously the US is concerned by North Korea's admission to officials that it does have a highly enriched uranium (HEU) development program, in addition to its plutonium program. Now, making its ambassador in Seoul the top US negotiator indicates what may well be Washington's new approach. This is interpreted by some analysts here as meaning that Washington now wants substance and progress, instead of symbolism, impasse and lockout. Never has an American ambassador been assigned such high-level responsibility in the course of the North Korean nuclear-weapons crisis that erupted in 1994.

With Hill's appointment, instead of watching the developments from afar, Washington will have a high-level observer on the ground. Hill will closely monitor not only the Pyongyang leadership and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, but also other parties to the talks, including China. Now Washington has a better window on South Korean President Roh and his moves both to engage the North and peacefully resolve the nuclear crisis.

This state of affairs also represents an opportunity for Roh to resuscitate the dying relationship between Seoul and Washington and restore mutual trust - if he keeps his word about being flexible, while sticking to his insistence on a non-nuclear Korean Peninsula. Roh has alienated Washington with his independent, go-it-alone policy, and by trying to cozy up to his Korean brethren in Pyongyang. Washington's support is critical for the success of the remaining three years of Roh's presidency, if he truly wants to achieve the goals stated in his address - to advance his nation economically and to solve the nuclear problem peacefully.

Jaewoo Choo, PhD, is a research fellow with the Trade Research Institute, Seoul. The opinions expressed in this article are his own.

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