[OUTLOOK]North's confessions backfiring

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[OUTLOOK]North's confessions backfiring

Observers have been puzzled about the motive behind the recent series of North Korean confessions. The North has suddenly admitted that it was behind some of the wrongdoings and longstanding regional mysteries.

Pyeongyang revealed to Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi that Japanese citizens were indeed abducted to North Korea. And U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly did not expect a sudden admission that a covert nuclear weapons program was going on in the North. These revelations are surprising because nations seldom or never publicly acknowledge their faults.

Agreeing to confess must have been a tough decision for the reclusive regime. According to Don Oberdorfer, a former Washington Post journalist who visited Pyeongyang after Mr. Kelly's departure, Foreign Ministry officials told him that they had a sleepless night after Mr. Kelly raised the question of the North's covert nuclear weapons development program. That can help us imagine how difficult it was for the North to decide to confess its sins.

The regime's decision to go down the bumpy road of confession stemmed from a shrewd calculation that to continue their denials in the face of the evidence would have been even more costly. But what played out was not exactly in line with Pyeongyang's expectations. Instead of a massive influx of Japanese capital because it had removed the most enduring obstacle to normalizing relations with Tokyo, what in fact surfaced was a deepening of resentment among the Japanese public. The prospects for diplomatic relations between the two neighbors continues to be far from sunny.

Had North Korea insisted on denying the existence of a covert nuclear weapons program in the face of Mr. Kelly's revelation that the United States knew about it, the regime would have had to prolong its confrontational attitude toward Washington. In gambling on using a confession as a strategy, policymakers in Pyeongyang must have been anticipating another round of negotiations like the 1993-1994 dialogue in Geneva on the North's nuclear program. If that was the case, Pyeongyang's shot landed completely off the mark, because Washington refused to engage in talks aimed at settling the nuclear issue and said it would talk about no other issues either until the nuclear program was halted.

Why the Bush administration refuses to negotiate is simple; there is a lack of trust. North Korea has broken all its nuclear weapons agreements, including the 1994 Geneva Agreed Framework, and has eluded all efforts at weapons inspection by U.S. and international officials. Washington's contention is that North Korea must now back up its promises with deeds.

There is no doubt the "confession diplomacy" has failed. But a North Korean denial of its program would likely have gotten the country no further, and its relations with Washington would have been even more difficult. Pyeongyang would have continued heated denials and Washington would have responded with more accusations and more pressure.

For the international community, North Korea's new willingness to acknowledge its actions is a good sign in one way: Acknowledgements can serve as the prelude to breakthroughs. The next step must be a better understanding by North Korea's ruling circles of how deeply the international community distrusts them, followed by earnest efforts to reach a lasting accommodation.

Some observers say there are only faint prospects for a dialogue between the United States and North Korea. Needless to say, improving relations between the two countries requires official negotiations. But informal contacts are taking place despite the lack of official dialogue. Negotiations between the two countries may already have begun.

Washington and Pyeong-yang have laid out their demands, and the next step is to find a common denominator on which to build mutual confidence.

Let us hope for the best.

* The writer is president of the Institute of Social Sciences.

by Kim Kyung-won

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