[TODAY]Make it a party of 6 at the tableNorth Korea, the United States and China had a strange three-way meeting in Beijing in April.
North Korea said it was a bilateral discussion with the United States held through China’s good offices; the United States, however, insisted that it was a multilateral discussion with China participating fully in the affair.
What made the three-way talks in Beijing even stranger was South Korea’s attitude toward them. President Roh Moo-hyun declared that his government had no interest in participating in the talks, while his foreign minister, Yoon Young-kwan, consistently maintained that Seoul’s participation in the talks was crucial. Only in an interview with a newspaper in late May did Mr. Yoon fall into line with his boss, saying that continuing the momentum of the talks was more important than direct participation by the South Korean government.
Considering the bilateral nature of the crisis between the United States and North Korea, the president was certainly in the right. At the same time, Mr. Yoon’s position was more realistic because the United States also insisted on including Seoul and Tokyo in the continuing talks.
There are two main reasons why Washington would like to resolve the stand-off over North Korea’s nuclear program through multilateral negotiations.
One is that the pressure on North Korea will be more effective if Seoul, Beijing and Tokyo join in. The second reason is that if the negotiations go well and North Korea gives up its nuclear program, the burden of economic aid for the impoverished Stalinist regime could be shared with those countries.
Concerning the North’s nuclear program, though, no dialogue channel could be as realistic as bilateral talks between Washington and Pyeongyang. But if nothing shakes American determination to make these negotiations multilateral, the talks should be conducted with six, not five participants.
Russia, as well as Japan and South Korea, should join the original three at the bargaining table.
There is no argument that China has a far more direct influence over North Korea than does Russia; the North Korean economy is still hanging by a thread only because of the food and energy China provides every year. Yet it would not be wise or realistic to ignore the still-considerable political influence of Russia on Pyeongyang.
Despite repeated requests from South Korea and the United States, China long hesitated to exert its influence on North Korea. Beijing insisted that its influence would do little to change the minds of the political leaders in Pyeongyang. It moved from that position only when the North Koreans admitted to a uranium enrichment program and then went on to confess that they possessed nuclear arms.
Beijing now also feels the threat of North Korea’s flirtation with nuclear weapons. The three-way talks last month were the result of that new awareness.
Yet once China puts excessive pressure on the North Korean regime, Pyeongyang may turn to Russia for help. Kim Jong-il is already wary of the patronizing attitude of Jiang Zemin and other Chinese leaders, who treat him only as the son of their deceased friend. Mr. Kim reportedly feels more camaraderie towards the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, who is closer to his age than the Chinese leaders are.
Time is running out for solving the North Korean nuclear crisis. The United States has already gathered Australia and Japan in international solidarity to intensify the pressure on North Korea.
In a highly-publicized incident, Australia cracked down on a shipment of illegal drugs from North Korea, exposing drug smuggling by the North’s regime that could be used to justify sanctions on Pyeongyang.
Japan has followed suit. In recent days, Tokyo has stepped up its inspections of North Korean ships, detained the president of a Japanese company who is suspected of having sold missile-related machinery to Pyeongyang and resisted the entry of a North Korean ferry into a Japanese port; it is practicing, in effect, a containment policy.
Mr. Kim's daredevil plan to make a deal by admitting that Pyeongyang had nuclear weapons has failed. North Korea is now driven to the wall. The encircling net thrown by the United States and held in place by Australia and Japan has surfaced.
Pressure must be exerted on North Korea. But the pressure should fall short of full-scale economic containment. A cornered rat can certainly bite a cat, and overly zealous pressure is never a good idea.
It is a good omen that North Korea has said it would participate in the proposed five-way talks. Lest North Korea change its mind, let's make it easier on it by making it a party of six, by including the Russians at the table.
* The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Young-hie