TOKYO - North Korea has stolen the spotlight if not the thunder from United
States nuclear envoy Stephen Bosworth's quick trip to Northeast Asian capitals
this week with an adroitly timed call for resuming six-party talks on its nukes
with "no preconditions".
The North Korean proposal could hardly have been better timed considering that
it came right after Bosworth in Seoul got through saying there was no point "in
talks for the sake of talks". Then Bosworth was off to Beijing, where he
propounded the same message along with the usual plea for China please to rein
in its North Korean protectorate.
The Chinese had no trouble impressing on Bosworth their desire
to maintain "stability" on the Korean Peninsula - and to agreeing, but that
North Korea's possession of nukes was bad. That said, they went right ahead, as
Bosworth was wrapping up his Northeast rounds in Tokyo, endorsing North Korea's
The North Korean plea, better described as a demand, may deepen rather than
resolve differences between China and North Korea on one side and the US, South
Korea and Japan on the other. Reconciliationists may see it as in keeping with
the North's New Year's editorial yearning to "end confrontation", but it also
amounts to rejection of any notion of doing anything about its growing nuclear
Oh sure, North Korea is saying, let's sit down and talk and talk while we ask
for still more by way of massive aid, beginning with twin nuclear-energy
reactors. Those two were promised in the 1994 Geneva framework agreement under
which the North did indeed shut down its five-megawatt "experimental" reactor
for producing plutonium bombs at its Yongbyon complex. The framework, reached,
in the midst of another nuclear crisis, was signed by the US and North Korea,
South Korea was to have born the US$4-$5 billion cost of the reactors - to have
been constructed by South Korea's Doosan Heavy Industries, manufacturer of all
the South's own energy reactors.
The Geneva framework blew apart eight years later, leaving the energy reactors
never built, after revelations of the North's program for building another
reactor, this one for fabricating warheads with highly enriched uranium (HEU).
North Korea for several years denied anything to do with HEU, but lately has
shown off a nearly completed 20-megawatt uranium reactor to visitors, notably
to American physicist Siegfried Hecker, introducing a powerful bargaining tool
into whatever new talks finally emerge.
The pressure for resuming six-party talks, last held in Beijing more than two
years ago, is so intense that it remains quite possible the parties will again
convene for another few rounds of exchanging demands that neither side is
prepared to heed. The talks include North and South Korea, the US, Japan, China
South Korea's opposition Democratic Party, the legacy of the decade of liberal
leadership under Kim Dae-jung, the author of the "Sunshine" policy of
reconciliation, and his successor and soul mate, Roh Moo-hyun, has called for
an end to "provocations" - by the conservative President Lee Myung-bak and is
all in favor of more talking, no strings attached. Kim and Roh both died in
2009, but Lee faces hostility for his government's spurning the North's call
after Lee said in his New Year's message that he too wanted dialogue.
As Mingi Hyun, research fellow at the Korea Institute for Maritime Strategy,
remarked, "People in Korea feel the need to increase cooperation," despite
"popular sentiment against it."
There is no doubt, though, the China-North Korea standoff against the US, Japan
and South Korea will harden as Japan joins calls for North Korea to do
something to prove it's acting in good faith in pleading for a return to the
Remember, Japan is now led by the Democratic Party of Japan, which drove the
long-ruling but calcified Liberal-Democratic Party from power in 2009 on
promises to do away with American bases.
Japan's Prime Minister Naoto Kan, before the latest conciliatory moves by the
North, had already gone back on the idea of getting rid of the American bases
on Okinawa despite the opposition of Okinawan residents. The current plan calls
for the US to move a marine air station out of a populated area to a more
remote part of Okinawa while other elements transfer to Guam.
Kan took over leadership of his party - and the government - last June when his
predecessor, Yukio Hatoyama, had to resign after moderating his view on the
bases. He has been increasingly receptive to US forces since the North's
artillery barrage on a South Korean island in the Yellow Sea in November that
resulted in the deaths of two marines and two civilians and the sinking of the
South Korean ship the Cheonan in March with a loss of 46 lives.
At the same time, President Lee, who as a young student was jailed briefly for
leading anti-Japan demonstrations against opening of diplomatic relations
between South Korea and Japan in 1965, has encouraged close cooperation with
Tokyo in the form of occasional military exercises, most recently off the South
Korean port of Pusan.
Implicit is the desire for Japan and South Korea to get over the legacy of 35
years of Japanese colonial rule and decades of animosity and suspicion - and
cooperate for mutual defense against the North Korea threat and concerns about
China's rising role as the dominant regional power.
Nobody has illusions about a trilateral alliance considering popular sentiment
in both countries. South Koreans cannot get over Japan's insistence on its
claim to Dokdo, the rocky islets between Korea and Japan that are held by a
Korean garrison, and Japan has to worry about any move suggesting renunciation
of the post World War II constitution banning participation in conflicts
Still, Japan and South Korea are likely to come to terms on a deal for sharing
equipment, intelligence and know-how, at least during peace time, and they can
certainly agree on a similar stand against returning to six-party talks. While
Bosworth was in Tokyo, Japan's Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara, standing beside
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington, called for "concrete
actions" by the North as a prerequisite for talks.
In a talk in Washington, Maehara also called for North-South Korean dialogue -
a proposal that might sound simple but isn't. North Korea would prefer to
bypass the South, which would go on demanding apologies and compensation for
the Cheonan and island attacks, while confronting the US across the
table with its demand for all the aid it can get.
Hideaki Kase, historian and author of numerous books and articles on Japanese
military issues, sees the United States as playing the pivotal role against
China and the North. "As long as the US is involved," he said, "it's Japan and
the US and Korea and the US."
He is not sanguine, however, about the aftermath on the Korean Peninsula in the
unlikely event that the Seoul government took over the Korean Peninsula after
the collapse of the North Korean regime.
South Korea, Kase predicted, would want a united Korea to be a nuclear power -
under South Korean control. "That's worrisome," he said. "I don't think we can
stand for a Korean peninsula with nuclear weapons."
Returning to immediate reality, however, Japan's biggest-selling newspaper, the
conservative Yomiuri Shimbun, reported that Japan and South Korea may sign a
military cooperation agreement in several months calling for military
cooperation in peacetime despite what it said were "lingering disputes
concerning Japan's colonial rule".
The newspaper cited "growing uncertainty in East Asia", notably "increased
aggression by China and North Korea," as prompting the view that "enhanced
bilateral defense ties are indispensable".