Resumption of nuclear talks
The Friday meeting of July 22 between South Korean nuclear envoy Wi Sung-lak and his North Korean counterpart Ri Young-ho in Bali, Indonesia, followed by an unofficial foreign ministerial contact of the two sides the next day, is a welcome development for the prospect of resuming the six-party talks aiming at the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. DPRK Vice Foreign Minister Ri told the press, ``I met with the South side’s head of delegation as a part of our effort to resume the six-party talks as soon possible and to implement the Sept. 19 Joint Statement.”
There are clear traces of the joint collaboration between the United States and China that led to the holding of the inter-Korean meeting on denuclearization. Both China and the United States, despite their disagreements in other areas, share the same interest to prevent provocations and to maintain stability on the peninsula. They seem to have successfully cajoled their respective allies toward the resumption of the multilateral nuclear talks, which have been suspended since December 2008.
The inter-Korean contacts for denuclearization seem to have been the first step in the two-tier formula ― preliminary talks between the North and the South, to be followed by dialogue between the DPRK and the United States ― prior to the resumption of the main talks. However, it is not certain that these contacts would soon lead to U.S.-DPRK talks. South Korea wants to confirm the genuine intent of the North to denuclearize. And, the casual inter-Korean meeting in Bali would not suffice the South Korean needs.
North Korea preferred to jump to direct talks with the United States, which the Chinese had first supported, and South Korea wanted to have talks with the North first at its initiative, which had been accepted by the United States and later agreed to by the Chinese. As it became almost impossible to make any progress in direct inter-Korean talks, the South Korean government was put under pressure to delink the incidents of the Cheonan navy ship and Yeonpyeong Island from the issue of restarting the six-party talks.
Neither the North nor the South wants to be seen as resisting dialogue for denuclearization in the eyes of the international community. Although China is not as much concerned as the United States about North Korea’s nuclear program or proliferation of nuclear technology, China is concerned about possible U.S. military intervention in reaction to North Korean provocation.
On the other hand, the United States, while committed to the defense of its allied South Korea, would be very reluctant to go to another war in Korea, largely because of its political and economic problems at home, including the latest clash over the debt ceiling and budget deficit. Despite all the deterrent measures and the readiness to fight back any unlikely major North Korean provocation, it remains to be seen that the United States would fight another all-out war in Korea. A war is not determined by military commanders but by political leaders.
Sideline meetings at the ARF (ASEAN Regional Forum) did not critically affect the policies of the key players in the nuclear talks. Secretary Colin Powell’s meeting with his DPRK counterpart, Paek Nam-soon, in Brunei at the end of July 2002, was followed by the decisive hardening of U.S. North Korea policy at the disclosure of North Korea’s uranium enrichment program three months later. The ARF has traditionally supported the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and it will do so again this week.
In the midst of press reports about North Korea’s illegal imports of luxury goods while the North is begging for international food aid, its people are fleeing from the country, and it continues proliferation activities in violation of U.N. sanctions, North Korea still seems to be firmly in control of its own destiny. North Korea is a predictable state in terms of what it wants to do. It does not compromise its ``principle of sovereignty and independence” but it constantly overhauls its strategic approaches for survival and pragmatic interests. If it determines provocation does not help, it will stop provocation.
Resumption of the six-party talks itself does not guarantee anything. But as long as there is no better venue to discuss the subjection of denuclearization, and as it is likely that the North would refrain from provocation, while engaged in talks, the six-party talks is still the way to go.
At this stage of the game, it is becoming increasingly immaterial to question or prove the North Korean intent of denuclearization, because the North Koreans would not voluntarily deliver the proof of their sincerity that South Korea and the United States have said they wanted. In this regard, the United States seems to have softened its hard-line position that had effectively delayed the talks. Washington even appears to have lowered the bar for the North to come to the six-party talks. It was a mistake on the part of the United States and South Korea, if they had thought that North Korea would really show its seriousness in denuclearization by some kind of action beyond words.
Whereas being seen as interested in dialogue for denuclearization has some political points for South Korea for the upcoming 2012 elections, it does not have an appeal for domestic politics in the North, which often exploits international tensions to their advantage.
Besides the question of whether the development in Bali would bring a breakthrough to the deadlock of nuclear talks, we should recognize the cold reality that the North Korean regime continues to exist, with its nuclear arsenal and its resilient survivability. What’s your take?
Tong Kim is a research professor with the Ilmin Institute of International Relations at Korea University and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.