[OUTLOOK]It’s up to Rice to end standoff

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[OUTLOOK]It’s up to Rice to end standoff

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s comments on the North Korean nuclear standoff during her recent visits to Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing can be summarized in two sentences: “The United States would not let the nuclear standoff with North Korea continue indefinitely,” and if North Korea’s position does not change, “we’ll have to look at other options.”
Definitely, these are not the words that Beijing and Seoul, not to mention Pyongyang, anticipated from Ms. Rice. She has emphasized the need for a diplomatic solution to the issue ever since she was nominated for the post. It seems, however, that her emphasis is going to shift to non-diplomatic ones as she toured Asia.
Because, if I may borrow her expression, “obviously, everyone is aware” that the “other options” she mentioned are no other than adoption of a resolution at the UN Security Council and imposition of sanctions on North Korea. It is also “obvious” that North Korea will refuse to return to the six-party talks, even if China sends another envoy to Pyongyang in less than three months, if the conditions it demanded are not met by the United States.
The conditions Kim Jong-il suggested to the Chinese envoy to Pyongyang, Wang Jiarui, last month were an explanation from the United States for defining North Korea as an “outpost of tyranny” and acceptance of North Korea as an equal dialogue partner. The two conditions look unrelated to the substance of the North Korean nuclear problem and seem designed to help North Korean leadership save face. They even look harmless, if only for the sake of a solution to a pending international dispute ― all Ms. Rice would have to do is apologize for calling the country an “outpost of tyranny.”
But she said she wouldn’t give in to the North’s demands. “I don’t know that one apologizes for speaking the truth,” she said. It is inevitable that the nuclear crisis originating from Pyongyang will enter a new chapter.
Her comment that “we will have to look at other options” can be misinterpreted as signaling the end to the tedious negotiations with North Korea and to the nuclear standoff. But transferring the issue to the UN Security Council is not the end of the story. Rather, the adoption of a UN resolution at the Security Council could be the beginning of a major tug-of-war between Pyongyang and Washington. That is especially so for North Korea.
First of all, the discussions at the council, the adoption of a resolution, imposition of economic sanctions, and the final stage of military action requires a long, complicated process. North Korea will not take the transfer of its case to the Security Council or adoption of a resolution as a threat.
Secondly, the typical North Korean tactic of brinkmanship accompanies a strong psychological effect in a crisis situation. Especially since the North has declared it possesses nuclear weapons and the U.S. intelligence agencies estimate that at least one or two, or as many as eight or nine, plutonium-based nuclear bombs are in the North’s hands, the world cannot help worrying about a nuclear doomsday scenario.
Thirdly, China and South Korea will object to the imposition of sanctions on North Korea. China can’t sit by idly, watching its communist ally for the past 60 years collapse under international sanctions. Moreover, China worries over the mass influx of North Korean refugees along its border. As this would mean an unprecedented crisis, the Chinese government will do whatever it can to prevent the collapse of the North Korean regime.
North Korea deploys more than 10,000 heavy artilleries along the military demarcation line. And it uses the potential threat of setting afire the Seoul area, where more than 10 million people live, as a last resort. Since the North declared its possession of nuclear weapons, it now holds virtually the whole South Korean population under a nuclear menace.
What’s more, supporters of Roh Moo-hyun government have a tendency to sympathize with the nationalistic ties to North Korea. They may organize mass rallies against sanctions and candlelight vigils as they did for the two schoolgirls slain by a U.S. Army vehicle.
Fourthly, the forces against the Bush administration’s unilateralism, such as intellectuals, anti-war groups and Islamic solidarity groups, will try to create an anti-U.S. sentiment in international society. Their criticism will not only aim at the actions taken by the United States but also the information used to justify the United States’ actions and harsh words against other countries. If the United States’ information on North Korea’s uranium nuclear weapons development program is proved to be a fabrication or an exaggeration, as the press says it is, its repercussions will be even greater.
Now is the time to contemplate the future of nuclear non-proliferation. If we fail to settle the North Korean nuclear standoff in a peaceful manner, it will not be possible to maintain the current non-proliferation system. There is still a chance to persuade the North to come back to the table if there is an apology for calling the country an “outpost of tyranny.”
Ms. Rice should contemplate whether she should apologize to the North and save the non-proliferation system, or keep ignoring the North and lead Northeast Asia into a nuclear catastrophe. It doesn’t make sense, as North Korea claims, that the United States brand its dialogue partner as a despot while inviting the country to come to the dialogue table.

* The writer is the editorial page editor of the JoongAng Daily.

by Park Sung-soo
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