[Outlook]Fear in a handful of dust

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[Outlook]Fear in a handful of dust

April is the cruelest month - so begins T. S. Eliot’s epic poem, “The Waste Land.” This is the phrase that comes to my mind when observing the ongoing six-party talks in Beijing regarding North Korea’s nuclear program. At first glance, the current objective seems to be an agreement on how to implement the first phase of the joint statement of Sep. 19, 2005. This first phase would consist of freezing North Korea’s nuclear facilities in Yeongbyeon and verifying that they remain frozen. Coordination of economic and energy aid, improving political relations and building a system to maintain peace are all included in the talks.
Yet the root of the problem lies deeper. It is about the time-old battle between “freezing” and “abolition.” It is about whether freezing Yongbyon’s five-megawatt nuclear reactor this time will indeed bring about complete abolition and prevent North Korea from slipping back to nuclear development as happened after the Geneva Agreement in the 1990s. In order to see which way the tide will turn, we must forecast the diplomatic climate for April, when implementation is scheduled to take place. We must especially pay attention to April conditions as they fall in Pyongyang, Washington and Seoul.
Eliot wrote that April was cruel because it breeds “Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/Memory and desire, stirring/Dull roots with spring rain.” The poet then writes “Winter kept us, warm, covering/Earth in forgetful snow, feeding/A little life with dried tubers.” For North Korea, which must choose to freeze and abolish its nuclear program, the awakening that Eliot thought made April cruel will indeed be harsh. It will be difficult for the military regime of North Korea to let go of the “winter” that has turned the northern part of the Korean Peninsula into a wasteland, freezing the freedom of expression that is the life blood of a democracy but the death knell of dictatorship. To choose abolition will not be simple for the leaders in Pyongyang. It will mean giving up the militarization of the nation and opting instead to open the country and accept a market economy. For those in power, April’s breath of new life could bring death as certainly as a cruel winter. The conditions North Korea has put forth for freezing its nuclear program will not be easy to negotiate, but the conditions for complete abolition that Kim Jong-il and his supporters have demanded will be impossible to achieve through negotiation alone. North Korea says it, too, wants peace, but that this peace should come on its terms.
The more North Korea’s belligerent leadership hesitates before its April awakening, the crueler this April will be for Washington. Washington might face a choice by Pyongyang that it will not be able to understand. Christopher Hill, the U.S. representative in the Beijing talks, made some honest comments about his feelings on the talks at a news conference in Tokyo two days before they were due to begin. He emphasized that the measures that North Korea, the United States and all parties to the talks have to take for the implementation of the first phase of the Sep. 19 statement were merely the first step on the road to freezing all the nuclear programs in North Korea and ultimately achieving nonproliferation. Mr. Hills’ words apply to the skeptics in Washington as well. However, if the efforts of Mr. Hill and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice fail then April in Washington will be as cruel as that in Pyongyang.
There’s a possibility that Seoul’s April will be as cruel as those of Pyongyang and Washington. With the president struggling to retain any semblance of power in the face of the presidential election, there is a risk that he will fall to the temptation to offer economic assistance to North Korea and pursue a summit meeting, if only for a basic agreement on a nuclear freeze, as was achieved with the Geneva Agreement in the early 1990s. If Seoul rushes forward before there is any assurance that North Korea is sincere about abolishing its nuclear program, it will find itself in a precarious situation. Seoul must avoid repeating the overhasty excitement it showed with the September joint statement.
In order to appreciate April as a sweet month, North Korea must realize immediately that nuclear armament and militarization leads to certain doom. We should take the necessary measures to help it come to this realization. The United States must accept the fact that it is impossible to achieve non-proliferation simply by pursuing negotiations for North Korea to freeze its nuclear facilities with the ultimate objective of abolishing them. The moment Seoul, blinded by the demands of domestic politics, mistakes a Pyongyang freeze of its nuclear program as an absolute abandonment, we will experience the cruelest April ever. Or, as Eliot wrote elsewhere, “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”

*The writer is a professor of international relations at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Ha Young-sun
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