Korea nuke talks bid boils down to trust
By Sunny Lee
BEIJING - If United States envoy Stephen Bosworth's current Asia swing is to
bear fruit, he will have to persuade the countries in the stalled six-party
talks designed to persuade North Korea to give up its nukes to return to the
This means China, North and South Korea, the United States, Japan and Russia
will all have to agree - and that's the difficult part.
The talks have been stalled for two years. "The countries have had enough time
for confrontation so far. So, now there is an atmosphere that it's time to talk
again," said Cho Myong-chol, a
former professor from Pyongyang's Kim Il-sung University, who now lives in
South Korea after defecting.
China and Russia have already signed up for the new round of negotiations. The
United States is interested in engaging North Korea through the multilateral
talks as it is eager to stop North Korea from proliferating nuclear weapons or
technology. As he arrived in Seoul this week, Bosworth said he hoped "serious
negotiations" over Pyongyang's nuclear program could start soon.
Seoul and Pyongyang, after a recent flare-up in tensions, made conciliatory New
Year's statements. Following on their heels, Japan on Tuesday also said it was
open to talks with North Korea.
Liu Jiangyong, an international studies scholar at Tsinghua University in
Beijing, optimistically points to a timetable for the talks to be held some
time in February, after the Lunar New Year holiday celebrated in many Asian
countries, including China and the two Koreas.
Liu also believes China and the US by then will have sorted out the North
Korean issue in a summit between President Hu Jintao and President Barack Obama
that is scheduled for later this month.
Yet Yang Xiyu, a former Chinese Foreign Ministry official who was an insider of
the six-party talks as a negotiator, remains cautious. "Despite the latest
signals I remain a bit pessimistic. You know it's not easy to resume the
six-party talks mainly because the US, South Korea and Japan still insist on
some preconditions," Yang told Asia Times Online.
On Wednesday, Bosworth held talks with Seoul's chief nuclear envoy, Wi
Sung-lac, to discuss what conditions the North must meet for the talks to
resume. Although details were not immediately available, pundits widely expect
conditions to include the North halting its nuclear development and allowing
international nuclear inspectors back in to monitor its nuclear activities.
Yang believes Seoul's and Washington's stance of insisting on preconditions
will "just waste a lot of time" as North Korea is sure to present its own set
of conditions. He argues for unconditional resumption and holding the talks as
soon as possible as the best way to preserve the rare momentum.
"All these issues can be addressed once we resume the talks," said Yang.
Some security advisers to South Korean President Lee Myung-bak are said to want
to see North Korea dismantling its nuclear arsenal first. "I don't buy this
argument," said Yang. "Because the talks themselves are designed to bargain the
A growing pessimism, however, also hangs over the effectiveness of the
six-party talks. Since their inception in 2003 with the idea of dissuading
North Korea from going nuclear, North Korea has carried out nuclear testing
twice, the direct opposite of what it was supposed to do. For that matter, some
critics say the six-party talks actually allowed North Korea to "buy time" to
enhance its nuclear technology while giving the world the deceptive impression
that it was engaged in nuclear disarmament efforts.
"Does anybody really, seriously believe it can accomplish something?" said Lee
Chun-kun, the director of the Foreign Affairs and National Security Division at
the Korea Economic Research Institute, a Seoul-based think-tank. "I don't think
even China believes it, to be frank."
Cho disagreed: "If you argue that the six-party talks are useless, you should
propose an alternative. When there is no alternative, the platform still
remains the only option we have."
Liu in Beijing defended it too. "It provides a platform for rare direct
dialogue among countries that don't have diplomatic relations," and has a use
in managing any crisis that might arise from a lack of communication. "If you
have a cold and you don't take medicine and you also don't put on a mask, after
things get worse, you cannot say the mask was useless," said Liu.
The six-party talks have become a habitual diplomatic instrument where every
participant knows North Korea won't give up its nukes but still plays the game
for domestic political gains and international appearances, according Lee.
South Korea is engaged in domestic face-saving to tell its public why the
government is shifting hurriedly from its hardline posture, including numerous
military drills and vowing revenge on North Korea, to a drastically softer
Lee Hoi-chang, the leader of the minority Liberty Forward Party, on Wednesday
criticized the Lee administration for its unprincipled attitude. "Just
recently, the Presidential Blue House pledged that it would take a North Korean
apology on the sinking of the frigate Cheonan and the shelling of
Yeongpyeong Island to resume inter-Korean dialogue. Now, how can people trust
Nonetheless, Lee, the director of the Foreign Affairs and National Security
Division at the Korea Economic Research Institute, believes South Korea will
give the appearance that it now wants the six-party talks to go ahead.
"The other countries are interested in holding it. North Korea is making an
all-out peace offense now. In this circumstance, if you say you don't want it,
then you appear as if you don't love peace," said Lee.
However, there is also a view that the resumption of talks will not materialize
very soon, despite the exact purpose of Bosworth's visit to Asia to encourage
the process. "Bosworth was here in November too," said Lee Jong-won, professor
of international relations at Rikkyo University in Japan. He remains cautious:
"It's too early to tell."
Pundits say the US is playing an intricate diplomatic game. It has to give some
diplomatic face to China, the host to the six-party talks, as Hu Jintao will
visit Washington. But then it should also give face to South Korea, its strong
Asian ally, which fears being left in the cold while China and the US negotiate
the North Korean issue between them.
Meanwhile, the US also has to keep in mind how its conciliatory handling of
North Korea after the latter's provocative behavior would give a "wrong signal"
to Iran about how the US will deal with "rouge" regimes.
For that matter, Chinese state CCTV commentator Yin Zhou was cautious when he
said, "Bosworth didn't come to Asia to give a present, but to put forward
conditions to restart the talks."
According to Cho, the main two players, in the end, who make and break the
talks are the United States and North Korea. And it, in the end, also boils
down to a trust problem. "It's up to whether the US can trust North Korea's
sincerity," said Cho.
Yang, the Chinese negotiator, was the architect of the 2005 seminal agreement
that provided a roadmap for North Korea's nuclear dismantlement. "It was a very
hard negotiation. And at that time, I felt the distrust was mutual," said Yang.
"It was not only the distrust from the US against North Korea. North Korea also
had a long, deep distrust against the United States too. When the US talks
about how it can trust North Korea, I can imagine North Korea can also
certainly raise the same question of how it can trust the US if it does
something toward dismantlement?"
Sunny Lee (email@example.com) is a Seoul-born columnist
and journalist; he has degrees from the US and China.