[TODAY]Multi-party talks are a preludeThe war in Iraq has left two contradictory impacts on North Korea.
The first is that North Korea began to refrain from provocative remarks toward the United States as the war proceeded. Pyeongyang saw the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime without any notable combat or resistance after the Bush administration initiated the war despite opposition from much of the rest of the world.
The second impact is that North Korea may have the strong temptation to equip itself with a nuclear denial capability, a sure means to defend its regime against the powerful military force of the United States. To North Korea, this is a strategy for survival; to the United States, it is a direct challenge to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
The three-way talks in Beijing between North Korea, the United States, and China were the first step of a long journey to head off this second repercussion. Doing nothing about the North would have brought about a dramatic change in Northeast Asia with the addition of a country possessing nuclear weapons. If the North has nuclear weapons, that would obviously trigger a nuclear arms race involving South Korea, Japan, China and Taiwan.
I’d like to remind those who rail against the absence of South Korea from the Beijing talks of what happened from mid-March to early April. The United States dispatched an aircraft carrier to Busan and reinforced its air power stationed in South Korea. A North Korean fighter jet risked an approach to a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft. Stock prices and the outlook for South Korea’s national credit rating dropped. The rich rushed to buy dollars. All these were natural responses to North Korea’s broad hints that the regime was in the final stages of developing nuclear arms.
Fortunately, while Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and hard-liners in the Pentagon were distracted with Iraq, Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice received final approval from President George W. Bush for the three-party talks.
That diplomacy was never an easy task. Mr. Powell pushed the reluctant Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing in Beijing and at the United Nations to persuade North Korea to come to dialogue. China’s Vice Premier Qian Qichen finally visited Pyeongyang and succeeded in getting North Korea on board.
Mr. Powell first confided his plan for the three-way talks to South Korea’s Foreign Minister Yoon Young-kwan, who visited Washington at the end of March. At that time, there was no approval from Mr. Bush, so Mr. Powell asked Mr. Yoon to keep the information confidential, and it was half-confirmed that Pyeongyang pushed to keep the matter a secret. Mr. Bush approved the Beijing talks in a White House security meeting when Mr. Rumsfeld was away, and Mr. Powell informed Seoul of the approval through the U.S. ambassador to Korea, Thomas Hubbard, on the morning of April 14.
When the war in Iraq ended the way Mr. Rumsfeld wanted, war advocates in the United States were triumphant. It is clearly abnormal for Seoul to be left out of talks that will deal with the North Korean nuclear problem, upon which the future of the Korean Peninsula depends. But now when the hardline of Dick Cheney, Mr. Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz prevails in U.S. security strategy, it is a good sign that the North and the United States are opening a dialogue after the long freeze. It is quite chilling to imagine a scenario in which North Korea would go beyond the “red line,” reprocessing its spent nuclear fuel rods, and the United States would react along the lines of Mr. Rumsfeld’s preferred approach.
Regarding the Beijing talks as North Korea-U.S. talks arranged by China, North Korea is determined to argue that substantive issues, including the nuclear problem, be discussed at the beginning. But the United States takes the position that the Beijing talks are multilateral, include China, and are a prelude to an expanded multilateral meeting where South Korea, Japan and perhaps Russia and the European Union participate.
It is difficult to expect to resolve the North Korean nuclear problem in multilateral talks, where the interests of each country would be in conflict.
To sum all this up, it is only realistic to solve the problem through deals between South Korea, the United States and North Korea within the framework of multilateral talks. It is not responsible behavior to object to the Beijing talks without suggesting any feasible alternatives. National wisdom is needed to develop the three-way talks into multilateral talks as soon as possible. Then South-North-U.S. talks can begin.
In the meantime, the government should not mislead people with the fiction of a South Korean lead role in the talks until a specific plan is mapped out.
* The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Young-hie
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