[OBSERVER]New game: Who will control the North?News item: Three U.S. ambassadors meet in Beijing as the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear arms falter.
News item: Unification Minister Lee Jong-seok worries that nations involved in the nuclear crisis are losing their concentration. They seem, he says, to be trying to incorporate mid- to long-term strategies.
Good, I say. We need more mid- and long-term thinking and less short-term thinking about wooing North Korea back to the six-party talks. The talks are going nowhere.
Jubilation greeted the announcement last September that North Korea had signed a piece of paper consenting to give up its nuclear ambitions ― eventually ― for a package of unspecified economic aid.
You might think that, of all people, South Koreans, having watched half a century’s worth of North Korean promises go into the shredder ― for example, the agreement in 1991 to make the Korean Peninsula nuclear-free ― would have been more cautious. Sure enough, within hours North Korea had added a new condition: The United States first must build it a nuclear reactor.
Promptly, the United States decided to get tough. It slapped sanctions on certain firms trading with North Korea, and blocked some of the dealings of a Macao bank that it accused of money-laundering North Korean counterfeit $100 bills.
Why now? North Korean counterfeiting was widely known a decade ago ― even to South Korean administrations before this one. The North Korean drug trade has been going on for ages. As a foreign correspondent in Moscow, I wrote a story about it more than 30 years ago. (North Korean diplomats were smuggling drugs in diplomatic pouches.)
So why did the United States suddenly decide to put the screws on North Korea, instead of coaxing it to live up to its word?
Some might say that Washington wanted to sabotage the glorious September agreement. Others might say that North Korea put forth its ridiculous demand about the nuclear reactor because it wanted to sabotage the glorious September agreement. Possibly both views are correct.
If North Korea thinks that nuclear deterrence is its security guarantee, why should it give it up? But if in the meantime it can gain concessions by pretending that it might give it up, then that’s smart diplomacy, right? What will you pay us to come back to Beijing for another round of negotiations?
The United States, always reluctant to negotiate with Pyongyang, was under tremendous pressure last summer to make a serious offer ― in effect, to call Pyongyang’s bluff. China, in particular, appears to have bluntly told the Americans that it would publicly blame an impasse on the United States. So the ensuing, triumphal breakthrough, containing items the United States had said it would never accept, was achieved. And then Pyongyang got coy ― again.
So two of the six parties went to the brink, and decided that no advantageous agreement was available. We needn’t condemn, either. All have the right to say, “There’s nothing in this for me,” and walk away.
Lately, we are reading planted stories that the U.S. squeeze is really hurting North Korea, that the increasingly frantic tone of North Korean propaganda (What? Isn’t it always increasingly frantic?) bespeaks a regime on its knees. Still, it doesn’t seem to be angling for an invitation to a new round of talks.
Maybe the six-party talks are no longer North Korea’s lifeline. Maybe China is. Has anyone noticed that China, too, seems no longer serious about the talks? Of course China can’t say that. It gained considerable diplomatic prestige through the negotiations. As host, Beijing shapes the agenda, cajoles the participants, proposes the communique. Thanks to North Korea’s obstinacy, China has become the key player in Northeast Asia.
But note China’s behavior away from the talks. The official spin on Kim Jong-il’s ostentatiously secret visit to China during the winter was that Mr. Kim had studied Chinese economic reforms. Did China browbeat him to return to the six-party talks? On the contrary, it lionized him as a praiseworthy leader.
Have you noticed the extraordinary increase in Chinese economic entanglement with Korea? A report in this paper last week said that as much as 90 percent of consumer goods on sale in North Korea originated in China. Other reports say that Chinese investment in North Korea has jumped by several thousand percent in the past three years.
South Koreans have always feared that an implosion of its destitute northern neighbor would be disastrous for the South. Kim Dae-jung’s “sunshine policy” quite explicitly aimed at building up North Korea and postponing reunification for 10, 15, 20 years. Now it appears that the South has a competitor in building up the North and staving off its collapse: China. The potential payoff for either is that North Korea falls under its benefactor’s domination.
Mid- to long-term thinking, indeed. The game is no longer whether the six-party talks can succeed. The game is who will dominate North Korea ― China or South Korea.
* The writer is a former editor of the JoongAng Daily and a professor at GSIS of Yonsei University.
by Harold Piper