[VIEWPOINT]Time right for 6-way solutionThe third round of the six-way talk on North Korean nuclear arms program held in Beijing last month made some headway. The United States put forward a new two-stage process and North Korea responded positively to it. It was agreed that a working-level meeting be held between the end of this month and early next. The fourth six-way meeting is now scheduled to take place before the end of September.
The multilateral negotiations have been viewed by many as fruitless meetings that only give North Korea more time to build nuclear warheads. Not much was expected out of the latest round of talks.
But surprisingly, Washington presented a new seven-page proposal with concrete suggestions. It was a major concession from the previous U.S. stance of giving rewards only if the North dismantled its nuclear weapons programs completely, verifiably and irrevocably. It was paradoxical also that the United States, which had taken a dim view of giving incentives in stages, had proposed a two-stage process.
What is the reason behind Washington’s change of mind, especially now? Washington is mired in the war in Iraq. It is almost imperative for President George W. Bush to keep North Korea negotiating until the U.S. presidential elections in November. To do so, Washington decided to toss the ball into the North Korean court, instead of showing continued inflexibility toward Pyeongyang. The North responded positively to the new American proposal, and a timetable for follow-up talks, like stepping-stones leading up to the U.S. election in November, was decided at the meeting.
The working-level officials will soon try to decide on the scope of the nuclear facilities and material to be dismantled. In September, they will present the results to the fourth round of six-way talks.
For President Bush, the next set of talks will be useful either in making a counterattack on John Kerry, or evading potential criticism from Mr. Kerry aimed at U.S. policy toward North Korea.
For North Korea, on the other hand, there is nothing to lose in discussing the new American proposal. Actually, the U.S. plan can be interpreted as evidence that Washington has finally accepted the North’s demand to discard its hard-line anti-North Korea policy. It will be rewarded with badly needed fuel oil and other economic aid, if only it agrees to prepare to dismantle its nuclear programs within three months ― the first-stage process.
The second-stage ― the actual dismantlement ― would not begin until after the U.S. election. Therefore, North Koreans could count this as a chance to watch changes in the U.S. policy after the election and control the speed of dismantling nuclear facilities. But that may not be a good idea, because a government change in Washington does not mean a change in its North Korea policy.
For North Korea, it is a rare chance to deal with Washington from a privileged position, because Washington wants to keep the North at the negotiating table. The North has a chance to get maximum rewards from the Bush administration by striking a last-minute bargain.
There are two choices before the North now. One is accepting the two-stage process wholeheartedly and trying to get as much as it can out of Washington. Pyeongyang can insist on its removal from the list of states sponsoring terrorism and the elimination of economic sanctions as part of the first-stage rewards. It may also ask for more fuel oil supplies from Seoul.
The other option is pretending to accept the U.S. proposal and delaying negotiations over the scope of nuclear-related facilities to be dismantled. Pyeongyang may resist the demand to include its alleged heavily enriched uranium program in the dismantling process. It may object to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency of its nuclear freeze and dismantling.
In this case, the North is focusing on the possibility of Washington changing its North Korea policy after the election. It also means that the North is not ready to abandon its nuclear weapons program.
For North Korea, it is important to strike when the iron is hot. The North’s leader Kim Jong-il should not miss this rare chance of making a last-minute deal with Mr. Bush. This can happen if Mr. Kim realizes that the weapons of mass destruction provide no protection to his regime. He might follow the example of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi of Libya,
Now would be a good time for Mr. Kim to fly to Vladivostok and discuss with President Vladimir Putin of Russia Moscow’s plan to build energy transmission lines to the North Korean border.
Mr. Kim also has a standing invitation to visit South Korea for the second round of the inter-Korean summit meeting in which various economic cooperation packages will be discussed. He should also meet Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi soon and finalize the 250,000 tons in rice aid that Mr. Koizumi promised and discuss tens of billions of dollars of compensation for the Japanese occupation of the Korean Peninsula in the early part of the last century. Mr. Kim should realize that, as one leading Korean businessman said, “The world is wide and there are many things to do,” other than concentrating on nuclear weapons programs.
* The writer is the opinion page editor of the JoongAng Daily.
by Park Sung-soo