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     Jul 30, 2009
North Korea sees an opening
By Donald Kirk

WASHINGTON - Here we go again. Pyongyang provokes a crisis, the world responds in varying degrees of rage, and North Korean officials talk about talks.

Only this time North Korea is looking for talks one-on-one with the United States, as it's always wanted. No way, say the North Koreans, will they return to six-party talks, an elaborate charade that finally went nowhere.

The reasons the North Koreans want bilateral dialogue are obvious. They can isolate South Korea, treating the South as a posturing satellite of the United States. They can call for a "peace treaty" formally ending the Korean War in place of the armistice, signed 56 years ago on July 27, 1953, that the North has said is no longer valid.

As a prerequisite for a peace treaty, they can demand, as always, that the US withdraw its dwindling forces from South Korea, break


off its alliance with the South and stop modernizing South Korea's armed forces with the latest weapons systems.

Above all, North Korea can turn the talks into a forum for yakking about "reciprocity" on abandoning nuclear weapons. That is, if North Korea is to give up its nuclear weapons program, which it resumed this year after refusing to agree to any system for verifying disablement of its nuclear facilities, North Korea can demand the US get rid of all nukes on warships and planes in the Pacific theater.

North Korea is not going to accomplish these aims very quickly, but the question is whether the US will eventually relent and agree to talks between an American and a North Korean diplomat with no one else invited.

For now Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is saying no. Her strategy, after talks with diplomats from other Asian countries, is to isolate North Korea, to call it a pariah with no sympathy and no prospects.

North Korea is "very isolated now" and has "no friends left", she has been saying, repeating a refrain in which the nasty North appears as the odd man out, skulking in the shadows. The US is putting teeth into these words by impressing on one and all the need to abide by the UN Security Council resolution, adopted after the North's second underground nuclear test on May 25, that bans trade with North Korea in just about everything that counts.

All that may be fine as a negotiating ploy, but North Korea now is coming out in the open with a strategy that may not be as misguided or unrealistic as it appears. No sooner did Clinton get back from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations regional forum in Phuket, Thailand, than North Korea's UN ambassador, Sin Son Ho, told journalists "We are not against dialogue ... not against any negotiations on issues of common concern".

For now, US officials are saying the talks have to begin in the six-party format at which North Korea signed on to a vague deal in September 2005 to get rid of its nuclear program in return for a huge infusion of aid. In the six-party setting, hosted by China and including the US, Japan and Russia as well as the two Koreas, the North after endless arm-twisting signed on to agreements in February and October 2007 that seemed as if Pyongyang would shut down its nuclear complex at Yongbyon and finally dismantle everything to do with nuclear weapons.

In return, of course, North Korea stood to become the most excessively foreign-funded country on the planet. What did a few billion really matter, the diplomats reasoned, if that was the price to pay for keeping the world safe from North Korea's nukes and missiles?

The whole scheme was fantasy, of course, as became clear when North Korea absolutely refused to talk about whatever it was doing to develop enriched uranium. That gambit was entirely separate from the complex at Yongbyon where it seemed possible to turn a five-megawatt "experimental" reactor off and on with the flick of a switch and finally extract the plutonium needed for nuclear devices.

Nor was anything said about getting rid of the six to a dozen nuclear devices the North is generally believed to have in its inventory. No one said a word about visiting the site of North Korea's first underground nuclear test on October 9, 2006.

The North bypassed these issues, all with the acquiescence of chief US negotiator Christopher Hill whose wishful thinking seemed powerful and pervasive enough to get him actually to believe his own optimistic words.

North Korea's leader Kim Jong-il, or whomever's really in charge while he hangs on with serious illnesses, has reason to be fairly confident that eventually the United States will want to talk some more.

The precedents are clear. The US, after appearing "hard line" at critical points over the past generation of recriminations, has always been under tremendous pressure to show a willingness to meet the enemy.

One of the easiest barbs tossed at George W Bush during his first term was that he was thwarting dialogue with North Korea. Bush-baiters pulled that one out of the drawer whenever North Korea got particularly tough. Kim Dae-jung, the South Korean president who initiated the Sunshine policy of reconciliation with the North, got upset when Bush, in their first meeting at the White House in March 2001, was rude enough to express "skepticism" about verifying any deal with Kim Jong-il.

Nobody has evinced the sentiment for one-on-one dialogue more clearly than President Barack Obama. Remember, when he was running for president, that he said he would be willing to talk to enemy leaders if that's what it took to bring about peace and reconciliation?

Obama now is looking to China to come to the rescue. During a visit of two top Chinese officials, he appealed for "collaboration to achieve the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and make it clear to North Korea that the path to security and respect can be traveled if they meet their obligations".

China, however, may be reluctant to do much to annoy its Korean War ally, especially while the North faces internal problems while Kim Jong-il tries to arrange his succession. Against that background, how can Clinton, tough though she may appear now, forever resist the arguments of the North Koreans to negotiate?

North Korea may have an opening, a means of maneuver, that will make avoidance of dialogue all the more difficult.

The opening is the fate of two female American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who were found guilty of intruding into North Korea along the Tumen River border with China and sentenced to 12 years of "hard labor".

They are not undergoing "hard labor" at all, at least not yet. Instead, they are reportedly still ensconced in the state guesthouse outside Pyongyang where they've been held for the past four and a half months. Meanwhile, North Korea reportedly is demanding that the US send a high-level envoy to talk about terms for their release.

Yonhap, the South Korean news agency, has reported that the US "in principle reached a compromise with North Korea on the dispatch of a special envoy for their release". The source as quoted by Yonhap said "70-80% of the negotiations are done".

Might the envoy be Al Gore, the former US vice president whose Current TV network in San Francisco sent the two on their assignment? Maybe not, but it's certain North Korea wants someone with name recognition.

Clinton and others in the administration have said the issue of the two women is entirely separate from that of nuclear talks. It's inconceivable, however, that North Korea sees them as anything other than pawns in a larger context.

Clinton herself has backed down somewhat from her initial claim that the two had done nothing to justify their arrest. They have, "apparently", she said, carefully choosing her words, "admitted that they probably did trespass so they are deeply regretful and we are very sorry it's happened".

Such an admission seems a small price to pay to winning their freedom, but that's obviously not all North Korea wants. Negotiations to bring them home may easily segue into the one-on-one dialogue that North Korea sees as the way to bypass the South while winning serious concessions from the US.

Journalist Donald Kirk has been covering Korea - and the confrontation of forces in Northeast Asia - for more than 30 years.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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(24 hours to 11:59pm ET,July 27, 2009)


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