[VIEWPOINT]Strategies at the Beijing tableThe first three-party meeting among China, North Korea and the United States to discuss North Korea’s nuclear program will take place in Beijing over three days, starting next Wednesday. Why three-party talks? North Korea had insisted on South Korea’s exclusion from the talks. Pyeongyang has never considered Seoul a partner for talks or negotiations over its nuclear program so this is not unexpected.
Pyeongyang’s position on Seoul was underscored by South Korea’s exclusion from discussions in 1994 that led to the Geneva Accords. Since then, Seoul has not had a single chance to participate with North Korea in any discussions about the nuclear issue. South Korea’s exclusion from the talks in Beijing next week is a continuation of this.
North Korea has always wanted and still wants exclusive talks with the United States. It did not stand to reason that North Korea would invite the United States freshly emerging from a victory in Iraq to the negotiation table. China’s eager offer to play middleman was most timely for North Korea and it also allowed it to save face. Furthermore, with only the three parties of the 1953 armistice attending the meeting in Beijing, the talks could provide an opportunity to discuss security concerns.
North Korea’s decision to relent on its demand for exclusive dialogue with the United States is in itself a surrender by Pyeongyang to a certain extent. The planned three-party talks have made North Korea’s nuclear program an international issue, as the United States has wanted, rather than a special issue between North Korea and the United States. With this, it seems likely that the United States will even further strengthen its position that pressure is a more efficient way to deal with North Korea than coaxing it with carrots.
With the war in Iraq, China understands the United States’ security strategy of “preventive pre-emptive strikes.” It has also realized how important an issue North Korea’s nuclear program is in the United States’ security strategy.
China’s national goal is to become an economic superpower shoulder-to-shoulder with the United States in the next 20 to 30 years. Such an ascent to superpower status requires energy. The war in Iraq has left the United States to assume leadership in reorganizing the world’s energy order. To pursue its top national interest, economic growth, China believes that the most practical thing it can do is not to do anything that goes against the United States’ strategy for world security. With the United States welcoming such a calculation, China has been placed at the forefront of the initiative to solve North Korea's nuclear program.
China knows well that North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons could cause a domino effect in Northeast Asia, with Taiwan and Japan all harboring nuclear ambitions. Therefore, China would, half-voluntarily and half-relunctantly, take a role in persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear program.
The South Korean government emphasizes a “peaceful” solution to the North Korean issue, but there is a difference between what the South Korean government and the U.S. government consider a peaceful solution. The peaceful solution that the South Korean government wants is restricted to the level of diplomatic talks and negotiations. On the other hand, peaceful solution refers to all non-military action in the U.S. government’s point of view. Thus, it would not exclude using “sticks” like economic sanctions.
The stage is set for the three-party talks, but the nuclear problem is far from solved. The United States firmly ascertains that North Korea’s permanent abolition of nuclear capabilities has to come before any economic aid to North Korea. On the other hand, Pyeongyang has always wanted to see the carrots first, asking for a guarantee of its regime’s survival and economic aid, and there are no signs that it has changed its attitude recently.
If North Korea insists on its position at the three-party talks in Beijing, the United States does not look like it would be long on patience. It could very well break off the talks and go to the United Nations Security Council to ask for economic sanctions to pressure Pyeongyang.
Our only choice is a solution based on the priority of South Korea-U.S. cooperation. If we do not want North Korea to develop nuclear weapons, the one thing we should do is to convince the United States that we put absolute priority on North Korea’s abandonment of its nuclear program. To do so, we must actively support and cooperate with U.S.-led efforts and show the unshakable firmness of the South Korea-U.S. alliance.
That is President Roh’s task when he visits Washington next month.
* The writer is a researcher at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses.
by Song Young-sun