[OUTLOOK]‘Election fever’ in the NorthThe story was as expected: Neither North Korea nor the United States wanted to spoil the talks. The U.S. presidential election in November held sway over the atmosphere of the second round of the six-nation meeting.
Stuck in the quagmire of the war in Iraq, the Bush administration is fighting for reelection. The administration would not want yet another crisis with the election approaching. Democratic presidential candidates are criticizing President Bush’s policy on North Korea. Pyeongyang is biding its time, thinking the situation will take a favorable turn if the Democrats win the presidential election. North Korea aims to hold out until the election.
The second round was significant in a unique way, providing a stepping stone toward the resolution of regional tension. The biggest achievement of the meeting was the establishment of a systematic mechanism to solve the North Korean nuclear problem. By the end of June, the six countries agreed, they would hold a third round of the talks and set up a working-level consultation group to handle specific matters. Finally, a realistic frame for negotiation has been prepared.
Anther improvement in the second round meeting was the diplomatic potential South Korea showed. Pyeongyang persistently demanded compensation first before it would freeze its nuclear capacity, while Washington said it would provide a financial package only after the dismantlement of the North’s program. In that deadlock, Seoul refreshingly proved that it could act as a buffer to remove the friction. Seoul proposed a three-stage plan, according to which Pyeongyang would freeze its nuclear weapons program and receive energy aid on the condition that it would dismantle the program altogether. The plan became a breakthrough and provided a direction for the resolution of the nuclear standoff. But frankly speaking, it would be easier to find problems that the meeting produced than achievements.
First, the six-nation talks did not address any central items, but just pushed them down to working-level meetings. Without a specific agreement on the definition and extent of the nuclear threat, working-level channels will be pointless. The duty of the working-level negotiations would be determined through diplomatic channels. But without a general agreement on the direction and guidelines, it is doubtful how much progress they can make. In the past, we have all witnessed the failure of quadripartite meeting as the nations pursued outward progress only, by organizing subcommittees, when they found it hard to agree on the central agenda. In order for the working-level channels to operate properly, the precise direction should be set immediately.
Meanwhile, North Korea completely denied the existence of a weapons program using highly enriched uranium. If only the North had acknowledged that program, we could have had a breakthrough in the framework of the nuclear freeze for compensation. Unless the uranium enrichment program is included, a freeze and dismantling would be meaningless.
At this point, the biggest concern is Pyeongyang’s stiffer attitude. When the six-nation meeting was scheduled, North Korea’s reaction was soft and friendly. Until recently, it had repeatedly claimed that it had made a bold concession by proposing a comprehensive freeze plan that included the suspension of its peaceful nuclear-powered industries. But at the Beijing meeting, Pyeongyang changed its attitude and limited the freeze to the nuclear weapons program.
Not long ago, North Korea had suggested a plan to send back the families of Japanese it had abducted. But when a Japanese delegation visited Pyeongyang recently with cautious hopes, the North Korean authorities suddenly changed their minds and repeated the original rhetoric. The change to stiffer attitude is related to happenings in the presidential election campaign in the United States. Pyeongyang’s change of heart coincided with the point when the popularity of Mr. Bush suddenly plunged.
North Korea seems to be responding too sensitively to the U.S. election campaign. But Pyeongyang must not repeat the fiasco of four years ago. It should not suffer a big loss by seeking a small gain. In a bid to maximize its interests, Pyeongyang sent an army leader, Jo Myong-rok, to Washington only three months before the last presidential election. If he had been sent to Washington earlier, history might have been different. The sooner the North gives up nuclear weapons, the better off it will be.
If Mr. Bush is reelected, Pyeongyang would find itself in a bad position. Even if the Democrats win, the United States would essentially pursue the same agenda in the post-Sept. 11 world.
The Bush administration did not pay much attention to Pyeongyang even when it acknowledged its spent fuel reprocessing, but the Democratic Clinton administration nearly went to war with the North.
* The writer is a professor at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Yun Duk-min