[OUTLOOK]Wounded nation looks to BeijingIt seems diligent South Koreans will now be rewarded for working so hard to survive this incompetent administration. The news from the six-party talks in Beijing seems like a breath of spring amid the winter of the nuclear crisis. The U.S. Treasury Department used to say it would never negotiate over counterfeit dollars because they are a U.S. law enforcement issue. But in the six-party talks, it has now discussed lifting financial sanctions on North Korea for two days in a row.
As for the nuclear issue, Washington and Pyongyang are having a serious discussion about the North freezing nuclear facilities and equipment and the incentives that will be offered in return. This is the first time such discussions have taken place since September of last year. It is a drastic change in Washington’s stance, which once said it would not tolerate the North’s communist regime.
A government official warned against excessive optimism but said it’s apparent that North Korea and the United States now have the will to resolve problems through negotiations. He said last year’s six-party talks started from scratch but still created the Sept. 16 joint declaration. This year’s talks started with a plan called the joint declaration, so a foundation for progress will be prepared, even if it is not completed.
The United States wanted to start with a timetable for North Korea’s abandonment of nuclear weapons. But North Korea said other issues should be included, such as control over conventional arms. That was anticipated because North Korea dubbed itself a nuclear state after its nuclear test. But the halt of its nuclear program, not nuclear arms, has now become the focus of debate.
Washington demands that operation of the 5-megawatt reactor in Yongbyon be halted and monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency. It also demands that North Korea voluntarily report other nuclear facilities and have them monitored by an international body.
But North Korea says halting the operation of the Yongbyon reactor and any inspections are the first steps and they demand that rewards be offered for each one. Kim Gye-gwan, North Korea’s top envoy to the talks, said he could only persuade hard-liners in his country if the five countries at the talks made clear what incentives North Korea would get.
It is a big achievement that North Korea and the United States have agreed to have meetings to discuss easing financial sanctions on North Korea. North Korea reportedly hinted that it would consider halting the operation of the reactor in Yongbyon if financial sanctions against it were lifted, although, at the talks, financial sanctions and the nuclear issue are debated as separate matters.
That suggests a halt in the operation of the graphite reactor could be traded for lifting some of financial sanctions on the North.
North Korea hopes that it will be able to use some of its accounts at the Banco Delta Asia, an urgent issue for the regime. As both North Korea and the United States are fairly satisfied with the tone of the talks and the results, another round is expected to be held by late January at the latest.
After the bargaining over the operation of the graphite moderator is done, the next phase is more difficult: abandonment of the graphite moderator and nuclear arms. In this phase, the U.S. demand of complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement, or CVID, will be on the table. This will not be a insurmountable obstacle as long as both parties have room for some give-and-take. But both countries have deep-rooted mutual distrust. It will be hard to persuade the United States that North Korea will give up its nuclear program. Washington suspects the North must be operating a nuclear facility somewhere. North Korea also is unconvinced that the United States will normalize its ties, sign a peace treaty and guarantee the stability of North Korea, once North Korea has given up its nuclear ambition.
But I want to be cautiously optimistic about this round of six-party talks, for two reasons. One reason is that North Korea is desperate for the financial sanctions against it to be lifted. The other reason is that U.S. President George W. Bush’s stance on North Korea has been softened so that his position is now similar to that of the Perry report produced by the Clinton Administration. The essence of the report is to accept North Korea as it is. There is no other gesture that better demonstrates a U.S. president’s respect for Kim Jong-il than signing a treaty to officially end the war.
The six-party talks will be lengthy and tedious. We need to have determination. South Korea’s situation looks dreary at the end of this year. South Koreans have been hurt many times by the president’s provocative remarks and the administration’s misrule. This is a harsh winter. We hope that a warm spring breeze will blow from Beijing and caress our wounded hearts.
*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Young-hie