[OUTLOOK]North plays the game to winThere was nothing new in the North Korean Central TV announcement last Saturday that Pyongyang has agreed to return to the six-party talks, except for the timing of the meeting, which was specified as the week of July 25. Still, the North’s decision decorated headlines not only in Seoul but also in most major cities around the world. On June 6 in New York, North Korean representatives told U.S. officials of their intention to return to the talks, and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il delivered the same message on June 17 to South Korea’s Unification Minister Chung Dong-young.
In that sense, Mr. Kim succeeded in getting publicity for making a “bold decision.” It was a big propaganda stunt for him, and he deserves recognition for it because he seems to have an instinct for seizing opportunities at the last minute and turning situations to his advantage.
North Korea emphasized that the agreement was made at a meeting between the North Korean and the United States’ chief delegates to the six-party talks. It further explained the background of the agreement as follows:
“The U.S. side has recognized the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as a sovereign state and assured us that it has no intention to invade. It has also announced that it will have bilateral talks with the DPRK within the framework of the six-party talks. The DPRK side has recognized the statements as the U.S. side’s retraction of the description an outpost of tyranny and decided to return to the six-party talks.”
It must be noted that Pyongyang repeats the two conditions it has laid out for its return to the talks: Washington’s abandonment of a hostile policy toward North Korea and a demand for bilateral talks with Washington. Pyongyang reckoned U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s statement that recognized North Korea as a sovereign state and repeated assurances from President George W. Bush that the United States has no intention of invading the North, as a retraction of the description “outpost of tyranny.”
From this perspective, North Korea can be seen as a characteristically Asian country with strong Confucian traditions. Instead of demanding more rewards, it talks about the retraction of “outpost of tyranny” and an end to a hostile policy toward it. Even though its economy is in shambles and millions of people suffer from hunger, what is important for its leadership is not asking for more aid, but keeping its pride and not losing the respect of others.
It was fortunate that Ms. Rice, accepting the advice of her counterpart in Seoul, Ban Ki-moon, recognized Pyongyang as a “sovereign state” and referred to it as such several times. In response to President Roh Moo-hyun’s request, President Bush referred to Kim Jong-il as “Mr. Kim.” Seemingly trivial things in the West have at least helped create an atmosphere conducive to the resumption of negotiations.
Of course, I don’t mean that saving North Korea’s face solves the problem. Kim Jong-il grasped the situation accurately: Washington’s patience was running out; Beijing is losing face because its special envoys failed repeatedly to persuade Pyongyang to return to the talks, and Seoul’s influence on Washington has run out after Mr. Roh’s latest summit with Mr. Bush.
Mr. Kim must have realized that Mr. Roh has done all he could for North Korea. Eventually, Mr. Kim met Mr. Chung, who was visiting Pyongyang to participate in an inter-Korean festival for unification. On June 17, the North korean leader said his negotiators would return to the talks in July.
The agenda for the next round of six-party talks can be summed up in three categories: dismantlement of Pyongyang’s nuclear program, economic aid for the North and a security guarantee for Mr. Kim from Washington.
Negotiations on the economic package will be smooth. South Korea is, in a sense, more enthusiastic about giving more economic compensation to the North than the North is to receive it. And Washington is taking a more flexible attitude to its allies’ economic assistance to North Korea, allowing some items banned previously for strategic reasons. Even before the start of the talks, Seoul has eagerly tried to persuade Washington to offer more incentives to Pyongyang. Recently Unification Minister Chung went to Washington to explain his meeting with Kim Jong-il and more specifically his “significant proposal” to provide two million kilowatts of electricity to North Korea, which he had presented to Mr. Kim. The supply of energy, including electricity, had been banned because of its possible use for military purposes. It was unexpected that Ms. Rice termed it a “useful proposal” and endorsed Seoul’s incentive to the North.
However, negotiations on dismantlement could stall over a question whether to include the North’s highly enriched uranium program.
The most difficult problem to tackle will be the security guarantee for North Korea. Washington and its allies want Pyongyang accept a regional security guarantee in which the United States takes part, but Pyongyang prefers to sign a bilateral security agreement with Washington. Pyongyang has long been asking Washington to sign a peace agreement that will replace the present armistice agreement.
When a peace treaty replaces the armistice agreement signed by the United States, China and North Korea, the U.S.-South Korea Mutual Defense Treaty will lose ground and the U.S. Forces in Korea might be withdrawn. It has been a part of North Korea’s more than a half-century-old strategy to unify the peninsula under communism, and here lies the reason why the North has been insisting on a bilateral deal with the United States.
This is also the reason why Seoul has to keep a delicate balance between inter-Korean cooperation and its alliance with the United States. Seoul has helped Pyongyang to decide to come back to the talks believing that it would help strengthen inter-Korean cooperation, but it could work to the contrary.
* The writer is the editorial page editor of the JoongAng Daily.
by Park Sung-soo