[VIEWPOINT]Is the glass half empty or half full?

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[VIEWPOINT]Is the glass half empty or half full?

Despite considerable skepticism about the efficacy of a nuclear deal with North Korea, I readily acknowledge that several recent developments are encouraging.
The Sept. 19 agreement on general principles provides a clear framework for the six-party talks. The objective, “a verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner,” is unexceptionable, and North Korea’s stated commitments to abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs, to return at an early date to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and to permit a resumption of Internation Atomic Energy Agency safeguards is welcome.
The parties seem to be positioning themselves for the tough bargaining that lies ahead. North Korea, according to New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, has affirmed its intent to participate in the next round of talks. Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to Pyongyang should put the North’s leader, Kim Jong-il, under continuing pressure to keep Beijing happy. South Korea’s offer to make substantial conventional power supplies available to the North provides a tangible response to its most critical economic requirement.
Japan maintains a balanced portfolio of potential incentives and selective sanctions, to utilize in response to Pyongyang’s conduct in the talks. And the United States has displayed a more professional interest in serious negotiations by avoiding gratuitous public slurs on the North’s leaders, commencing more regular exchanges with Pyongyang’s negotiators, and signaling a readiness to modify its earlier “take it or leave it” bargaining stance.
All these developments suggest that the diplomatic cup may be half full. Lest this conclusion betray the proverbial triumph of hope over experience, it is prudent to recall that ample grounds exist for caution.
First, it is much easier to achieve consensus on general principles than to resolve nagging disagreements over details. The agreement on general principles, moreover, is full of weasel words, and most of the contentious issues were finessed. For example, there is no mention of the North’s uranium enrichment program, no clarity as to what will happen to its existing nuclear facilities, and no clue as to the nature and scope of verification arrangements.
Second, it is unclear whether the North is interested in a deal or merely in buying time to continue the development of its nuclear capabilities. There are plenty of ways in which it can string the bargaining out, and it has already shown some of them, such as the upfront demand for a light water reactor.
Third, Seoul’s economic cooperation with the North is steadily expanding. Its readiness to link the North’s growing stake in economic cooperation with the South to progress in the nuclear talks, however, remains unclear. The same can be said of China.
Fourth, while I perceive no recent change in Japan’s posture toward North Korea, its relations with Beijing and Seoul have taken a dive in recent months. This will not make the diplomatic coordination essential to a favorable diplomatic outcome any easier to contrive.
Finally, the Bush administration, while displaying more tactical flexibility in the last round of six-party talks, is now confronting an unanticipated and escalating political challenge at home. It is not coming from its traditional Democratic opponents, but from its core supporters. The Republican Party’s fiscal conservatives are up in arms about the administration’s lack of budget discipline. Social conservatives lament the nomination, now withdrawn, of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court. Conservative “realists” are increasingly critical of the “utopianism” they ascribe to the president’s aspirations for the Middle East.
Most everyone is irritated by the ineptitude of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in responding to Hurricane Katrina. And if this were not enough, House Republican leader Tom DeLay has been indicted, and I. Lewis Libbey, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, appears in jeopardy from a special prosecutor. In this context, one may fairly ask how far the administration will proceed down a negotiating path that will be excoriated by the right as a replay of the 1994 Agreed Framework which they disdain.
These are among the considerations that suggest the glass is still half empty, and that the hard diplomatic work lies ahead. It is important to test North Korea’s willingness to make a hard choice with respect to its nuclear activities. Our best chance of presenting Pyongyang with that choice will continue to depend on transforming shared non-nuclear objectives among the United States, South Korea, Japan and China into an effective and well-coordinated negotiating strategy. This means there is plenty for our respective diplomats to do in the coming weeks, and I hope they will be successful in establishing a basis of agreement among themselves, before entering the next round with the North’s representatives. I will keep my fingers crossed, and my expectations hopeful, but modest.

* The writer, a former U.S. ambassador to Japan, is a professor at Stanford University.

by Michael H. Armacost
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