[VIEWPOINT]Nuclear talks and a U.S. election

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[VIEWPOINT]Nuclear talks and a U.S. election

The Washington Post reported on March 4 that President George W. Bush directly ordered the U. S. delegation to the second round of six-party talks on the North Korean nuclear problem to make it clear that the U.S. administration’s patience in diplomatically seeking North Korea’s dismantling of its weapons program could run out. The instruction from Mr. Bush was delivered to negotiators in Beijing on the third day of the talks, when the six countries were coordinating their opinions on details to draft a joint statement.
This short instruction stopped the discussion over the draft of the joint statement that China had pursued. Mr. Bush’s intervention revealed his administration’s ambiguous attitude toward the North and the ongoing conflict within the administration between the negotiators and the hard-line neoconservatives over the North’s nuclear problem. Regrettably, this hard-line attitude made the North return to its previous position.
President Bush now should be concerned about the coming presidential election. At this point, it is early to be optimistic about his victory, but I predict the future direction of the six-way talks will greatly affect his reelection.
To win the election, he has two options. One is to side with the neoconservatives’ hard-line policy on North Korea. In this case, Pyeongyang would in turn take a hard-line position toward the Bush administration. Then, the six-way talks would face a crisis in which the negotiating process itself would stop without making particular progress until the presidential election on Nov 2. Pyeongyang would intensify its criticism of Mr. Bush, and if Democratic candidate John Kerry took the opportunity to turn the campaign to his advantage, Mr. Bush’s reelection might not happen.
The other option is to side with the negotiators. In this case, Pyeongyang and Washington would make substantial progress through concessions and compromises in the future working-level meetings and the third round of the six-way talks. Pyeongyang would also cooperate with Washington, and essential matters unresolved in the second round of talks would possibly be settled by finding a consensus. Then, North Korea-U.S relations would improve tangibly, and Bush’s North Korea policy would be excluded from the list of criticisms from the Democratic campaign camp.
Predictably, by avoiding conflict and maintaining cooperative relations with Pyeongyang, Mr. Bush might improve the possibility of his reelection. He should choose one of these two options soon. There’s little time to lose. Needless to say, he should, as a politician, put the priority on his reelection in deciding his position. This is why I expect he will make a wise decision.
The greatest reason Mr. Bush failed to reach a compromise with the North concerning the nuclear problem for the past year and a half is that he listened to hard-line neoconservatives. They did not hide the fact that their objective was to replace the North’s regime. But now it has become inevitable for them to change their policy. To achieve their goal, they absolutely need Mr. Bush to be reelected. The president eventually will side with the negotiators. Then, we might expect to see tangible results from the future six-way talks.
Finally, some experts forecast that with the November U.S. election in mind, Pyeongyang will adopt a delaying tactic, saying there is no reason to strike a deal in a hurry. But this is to overlook the fact that the North attended the Beijing talks with a serious attitude for the first time. Most comment that such a change in Pyeongyang’s attitude was the result of China’s persuasion. Pyeongyang agreed on such an expression as the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in the final draft of the chairman’s statement issued under the name of China’s chief delegate, Wang Yi.
When the first round of the six-way talks ended in August last year, Pyeongyang said that it would no longer attend the talks. But now, it says, “We are in the first phase of the talks, and intend to continue to the end.” This shows it accepts the framework of sincere negotiation.
The six-way talks are now being institutionalized into a framework of official multilateral talks. Washington should clearly perceive Pyeongyang’s changed attitude toward the negotiations and take a more serious attitude in negotiating with the country.

* The writer, a former director of the Korean Institute for National Unification, is a director of National Movement for Inter-Korean Peace Projects. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kwak Tae-hwan
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