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[OUTLOOK]A multilateral front makes sense

June 04,2003
The United States has been insistent that talks with North Korea be organized in a multilateral framework, and it has concentrated its diplomacy on mobilizing a common front with Pyeongyang’s neighbors. The reasons are clear. The deficiencies of the 1994 Agreed Framework are now obvious. If there is to be a new bargain with the North, it must be more verifiable, less readily reversi-ble, and more comprehensive. In addition, its neighbors must possess an evident stake in its enforcement. This means we face a very ambitious negotiating objective. Only concerted action by the United States, South Korea, China, Japan, and perhaps Russia can provide the combination of possible incentives and potential sanctions that can provide the necessary leverage with which to induce the North to give up its nuclear ambitions.
In that connection, despite the unproductive exchanges between the United States, Chinese and North Korean representatives in Beijing last month, prospects for a diplomatic solution to the current crisis may be looking up.
- President Roh Moo-hyun’s visit was helpful in bolstering the appearance of unity between Seoul and Washing-ton. The visit was brief; the conversation between leaders carefully scripted; and residual disagreements were skirted, thus averting any repetition of the public discord that marred Kim Dae Jung’s visit in March 2001. Presidents Bush and Roh affirmed a shared determination to find a peaceful solution to Pyeongyang’s nuclear challenge, yet acknowledged the possible need to consider “further measures” if a diplomatic solution proves elusive. Evi-dently, some South Koreans regard this latter formulation as “shameful kowtowing.” To most observers here it sounded merely platitudinous -- a timely and unexceptionable remin-der to the North that a refusal to dismantle its nuclear program will bring adverse consequences.
- Though the Beijing talks fizzled, China managed to get Pyeongyang to the table in a venue that was multilateral. The Chinese regularly emphasize the limits on their influence with the North, but we have recently witnessed their clout. Since February, Beijing appears to have leaned on Kim Jong-il to temper the North’s provocations, and to slow down its headlong rush to reprocess plutonium. It underlined its seriousness of purpose by briefly, but pointedly, suspending oil supplies, and there have been rumors of tough, straightforward exchanges between Chinese emissaries and the “Dear Leader.” The Chinese doubtless recognize that a North Korean nuclear program could inspire emulation by others in the neighborhood. Leaving the Bush administration to tackle this problem alone, they may conjecture, could heighten the risk of an eventual resort to military force against the North’s nuclear facilities. Whatever China’s motives, their recent activism is most welcome.
- In Crawford, Texas, last weekend, President Bush and Prime Minister Koizumi both promised to ratchet up pressures on Pyeongyang should it persist with its nuclear activities. Indeed, Mr. Koizumi pledged prompt and energetic efforts to shut down North Korea’s illegal activities in Japan, most notably its drug trafficking, while tightening the screws on illegal exports of missile technology to the North. He conveyed Japan’s intent to reduce the flow of remittances from North Korean sympathizers in Japan to the North. Both emphasized that they would neither tolerate nuclear weapons in North Korea, nor give in to blackmail. Washing-ton endorsed Mr. Koizumi’s determination to get a full accounting of Japanese citizens abducted by Pyeongyang; Tokyo reiterated its unwillingness to proceed toward normalization so long as the nuclear issue remains unresolved.
- North Korea’s reputation suffered yet another blow after revelations of its involvement in exporting illicit drugs. The display of a North spy ship salvaged from the East China Sea at Japan’s Museum of Maritime Science in Tokyo provides one such reminder. Experts discovered on the ship a Toshiba mobile phone with recorded messages of revealing phone calls from crew members to known drug dealers in Japan. Australian police meanwhile discovered another load of heroin smuggled into their country from a North Korean ship.
- The coming celebration of St. Petersburg’s 300th anniversary, moreover, will provide another opportunity for President Bush to engage Vladimir Putin and Hu Jin-tao, respectively, on the North Korean issue.
- Indeed, grudging hints have appeared in the press suggesting that North Korea has already conditionally accepted the notion of South Korean and Japanese participation in future talks, provided these are preceded by bilateral discussions with Washington.
All these signs suggest that a common front among North Korea’s neighbors and the United States is beginning to take shape. That is a salutary development. So long as disunity persists, Pyeongyang’s diplomacy will focus on driving wedges between its potential interlocutors. Only an effort by the United States and its partners on this issue can concentrate Pyeongyang’s attention on the tough choice we need to present them: Give up nuclear activities in return for some mix of security assurances and economic concessions, or face even more stringent isolation, sanction, and hardship. We are making progress; there is plenty left to do. To prepare the ground further for fruitful negotiations, I suspect that progress will have to be made in Seoul in narrowing the differences between President Roh and his opposition over the terms on which the “sunshine policy” will be pursued, and in overcoming the divisions in the Bush administration between those who are prepared to drive a hard-nosed deal with Pyeongyang and those who wish to concentrate on transforming or removing the North’s distasteful regime.

* The writer, a former U.S. ambassador to Japan, is a professor at Stanford University.


by Michael H. Armacost


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