[OUTLOOK]End game is nigh for North KoreaThe announcement of six-sided talks to address Pyeong-yang’s nuclear program ushers in the end game for the North Korean regime. Will there be peace or war? Will Kim Jong-il survive or perish? We will know soon ― perhaps within a year, at most two.
Political situations, like living organisms, are either static or dynamic, either stable or unbalanced; and when dynamic or unbalanced, they will change to seek a new equilibrium. For half a century a certain bizarre stability has held on the Korean Peninsula. It was thrilling to call the Demilitarized Zone the most dangerous spot on Earth, but despite occasional skirmishes it really was not. Since the 1953 armistice, neither side has wanted a fight, because both knew that fighting would not achieve desired goals. De-spite flights of rhetoric on both sides, stasis and a divided Korea have suited both North and South as the best available deal.
Stasis also suited the surrounding powers ― China, Russia, Japan and the United States. Even the occasional crisis, like North Korea’s last foray into nuclear brinkmanship in 1994, was resolved in a way to preserve the existing stasis.
Now only South Korea wants things to stay the same. It still dreams the “sunshine” dream of Kim Dae-jung: Fellow Koreans in the North are to live under tyranny for another 10 or 20 years, while relations improve as cooperative projects build up North Korea to eventual parity with the South. Call it “stasis on a glide path.”
The appeal of stasis to Seoul is obvious, if the only alternatives seem to be war or the collapse of North Korea, with the South inheriting the wreckage.
But everyone else wants change ― apparently including even Kim Jong-il. It is no surprise that the swaggering United States wants to exorcise another node on the “axis of evil.” China and Japan are clearly fed up with North Korea. Russia is tempted by the possibilities for development of its vast, mineral-rich Far East with Japanese and Korean capital.
North Korea is clearly overmatched in this negotiation. Even though it has nominally friendly ties with China and Russia, it will get no real backing from them. A Chinese political analyst was quoted the other day as saying that the present crisis is 30 to 40 percent the fault of the United States, and 60 to 70 percent Pyeongyang’s fault ― this from its putative ally.
Pyeongyang stubbornly held out for one-on-one talks with the United States to keep the rest from ganging up on it. In the end it agreed to the larger forum because North Korea, too, can no longer live with the status quo. Its entire course of conduct since its clandestine nuclear program was disclosed last October has been to push for a breakthrough to a new balance by escalating the crisis, warning of war and demanding that the world satisfy it.
What does it hope to gain? It says it wants food, energy, development aid and a security guarantee. It says it will trade away its nuclear programs. It is the job of diplomats to put to-gether a deal along those lines. Call it “change on a glide path.”
But change rarely moves along smooth or expected lines. The United States is learning that lesson in Iraq. The objective ― ousting Saddam Hussein ― was achieved, but the unintended consequences are many. Kim Jong-il’s proposed deal ― nukes for food and security ― seems logical, but once the stability of the past 50 years is disturbed, events may outrun Mr. Kim’s control. Mikhail Gorbachev provides a cautionary example of a communist who embraced change and was devoured by it.
South Korea is proclaiming that the North’s acquiescence to new talks vindicates its diplomacy of bridge-building. Maybe, but most of the heavy lifting seems to have been done by China. Seoul’s diplomacy has been disappointingly unimaginative. Its public utterances show why the United States wanted a multilateral negotiation. Meet and solve the problem peacefully, South Korea has bleated, putting the onus on Washington and Pyeongyang. Seoul has said repeatedly that it would not insist on participating in the talks. Such modesty deferred to North Korea’s insistence that it would bargain only with the United States. But it also absolves Seoul of responsibility for shaping, and enforcing, any deal that is eventually struck.
South Korea should enter the coming negotiation boldly, for it has much to gain beyond the shibboleth “peace.” Peace will ― must ― be the outcome. But a new deal on the Korean Peninsula is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the South. Potential benefits include economic rewards, political heft in Northeast Asia, self-respect and a healthier relationship with the United States ― not to mention reconciliation with the North.
Change is coming. Seoul needs to move past idealistic amateurism. The Foreign Ministry and the Blue House need to define what they want, and to go after it.
* The writer is editor of the JoongAng Daily.
by Hal Piper