[VIEWPOINT]Who, then, will bell North Korea?The five-party talks proposed by China on North Korean nuclear weapons have expanded to six with the inclusion of Russia and are scheduled to open Aug. 27 in Beijing. Diplomats and experts from South Korea, the United States, China, Japan and Russia are busy meeting, consulting and exchanging information.
Various ideas on how to persuade the North to give up its nuclear ambitions have been discussed. South Korea proposed initial oral assurances if the North declared its intention to give up the program, followed by a written assurance by the regional powers when the North started dismantlement. The United States is considering a written assurance and, according to Secretary of State Colin Powell, a congressional resolution is a possibility.
In the last 10 months, a consensus has formed among the regional powers that a nuclear North Korea would be a threat to regional security. China, which had maintained that the issue should be settled between Washington and Pyeongyang, is now deeply engaged. It worries that a nuclear North Korea would cause Japan to build an anti-missile defense that might subsequently lead to a Japanese nuclear deterrent. Japan is fearful because its islands are vulnerable to North Korean missile and nuclear attacks; and Russia does not want an arms race in Northeast Asia.
The regional powers are now attempting, in President Bush’s words, “to say to him [Kim Jong-il] that it is not in his national interest to continue developing the weapons.”
The situation reminds me of Aesop’s fable “Belling the Cat.”
The mice met to consider how to outwit their common enemy, the cat. Some said this, some said that. At last a young mouse got up and said, “Our chief danger is in the sly and treacherous manner in which the enemy approaches us. I propose to buy a small bell and attach it around the cat’s neck.”
The Bush administration does not want to compromise with North Korea. It wants a permanent, irrevocable solution. It is strongly committed to the complete elimination of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. President Bush thought that the best way to persuade the North to change its attitude would be for others in the neighborhood to assume responsibility alongside the United States. All regional powers now are ready to tell Kim Jong-il to give up his nuclear program: They agreed to “bell the cat.”
But the real question, in diplomacy as in fables, is “Who is to bell the cat?”
To hard-line Americans, North Korea may not seem a cat to fear. They may think it a mouse trapped in a hole that should be eliminated for the peace of the region and to stop proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. But for North Korea’s neighbors, war on the Korean Peninsula and possible nuclear fallout on their territories are real threats.
In the coming talks, if North Korea resorts to its old tactics, demanding a nonaggression treaty and an American pledge to respect its sovereignty and right to economic development, the talks will deadlock. South Korea, Japan and China will feel threatened if North Korea revives brinkmanship formulas such as “sea of fire” and “declaration of war.” Japan will be panicked if the North fires a missile over its islands. If things go this way, Seoul will be the first to ask Washington to stop pressing the North. Japan, China and Russia will try to avoid a situation where the Americans launch preemptive strikes at targets in North Korea.
At that point, multilateral talks will no longer serve U.S policy objectives. Sideline meetings between Washington and Pyeongyang, if they can be arranged, will be the ultimate negotiating table ― that is, Washington would be left alone to bell the cat.
During 1994 North Korean nuclear crisis, South Korea volunteered to bell North Korea by proposing a summit meeting between President Kim Young-sam and the North Korean leader Kim Il Sung. But North Korea smartly managed to save its face by arranging direct talks with the United States through former President Jimmy Carter ― Washington was chosen by the North to bell the cat.
To prevent another compromise with North Korea, or an unwanted military option against it, cooperation among the parties in the talks is most important. While leaving military options open as a last resort, they should use whatever leverage they have on North Korea in a concerted manner.
South Korea has a role to play. Seoul should consider sending a special envoy to Pyeongyang. Lim Dong-won, former intelligence agency chief, would be a good choice. He whispered into the ear of Kim Jong-il during the historic South-North summit in 2000. He could whisper to him now: “Although there is no cash this time, the economic package will make you rich. And a congressional resolution is a no less strong guarantee than a formal nonaggression treaty.”
* The writer is opinion page editor of the JoongAng Daily.
by Park Sung-soo