Any point in talking with NK?
By Michael Breen
This week, officials from South Korea and the United States with the misfortune to be assigned to talk with North Korea, talked among themselves about restarting talks.
But is there any point?
The talks we’re talking about, you’ll know, are called six-party talks. That’s because they involve North Korea and five other parties (China, Japan and Russia along with South Korea and the U.S.). Since the start in 2003, as a compromise hosted by China because then-U.S. President George Bush didn’t see any point in the bilateral talks which the North Koreans wanted, North Korea has gone nuclear.
The talks, you’ll also know, were specifically intended to not let this happen.
There is a pattern here, firm enough for us to be sure the path to future failure will look the same. North Korea demands something, the other side throws in a counter-demand as a condition. Or the other way round. After some time, Kim Jong-il orders his talkers to walk. Then there’s some tension, maybe an incident or two. And then we start talking about having talks to restart the talks.
That’s where we’re at now.
My guess ― talks in Beijing in the spring. Come autumn, let’s brace for the walkout.
Simple as it may appear, this pattern is not apparent. It tends to get smothered by talk, by expectation, by complexity. Above all, by boredom. It’s as if the world keeps nodding off and picking up the program in mid-plot.
With the last walkout almost two years ago, most reporters covering the restart will be new to the Nork-talks beat. They’ll quote talkers who are happy to be doing something, and analysts who’ve always got something interesting to point out. Some might get giddy.
Thus the old story will look fresh.
But, trust me, the pattern will hold until there is a power shift.
Let me ask again: what’s the point? As I said, these talks don’t just go nowhere. They function as a distraction that buys North Korea time to develop the very weapons we’re supposed to be talking them out of. In that sense from the point of view of the five allies, they are dangerously unproductive.
So, what’s the point?
Consider the alternatives. We could do nothing. We could pretend, and hand the talks job over to foreign ministry interns in the five capitals and get those experienced chaps onto more important diplomatic duties. But then we know these two options will prompt North Korea, like a celebrity without a show, to go downhill and do bad things. Like it did last year to South Korea.
How’s about we just invade? On the night the North shelled Yeonpyeong Island, a government official who will remain nameless suggested to an informal group that we need to send a ``Rambo mission” to take out the Fat One and end this ongoing nightmare. Of course, he didn’t mean it. He wanted it ― wouldn’t we all like to see the video? ― but wasn’t really suggesting it.
But consider these courses of action for a serious moment, assassination or invasion. Better still, both. But when you ponder the likely consequences, and then stretch the imagination to factor in possible unintended consequences, the reason for the six-party talks becomes apparent.
They, and other forums like them, exist because they are all we have. Our only mistake is to expect progress absent the power shift.
So, I say, all power to the talkers talking about talks. Let them talk more. But don’t weigh them down with policy stuff. Train them with poetry. T.S. Eliot, for example. He wrote: ``I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope.” That’s a good thought to go to Beijing with.
Michael Breen is an author, former foreign correspondent and the chairman of Insight Communications, a public relations consulting company. He can be reached at email@example.com.