[Outlook]Moral hazards in New York

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[Outlook]Moral hazards in New York

There has been such euphoria in New York during the visit of Kim Gye-gwan, vice foreign minister of North Korea, that one might think formal diplomatic ties between the United States and North Korea will commence tomorrow. The seminar organized by the U.S. National Committee on American Foreign Policy was attended by former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright. It is reported that Mr. Kim was especially delighted to meet Mr. Kissinger.
The meeting between the North Korean envoy and Christopher Hill was a working-level discussion aimed at the normalization of ties between the two countries, based on the agreement reached on Feb. 13 at the six-party talks. The meeting was to discuss reciprocal measures that Washington will take in response to North Korea’s steps toward denuclearization.
The measures that North Korea must take include the closure and sealing of the nuclear facilities in Yongbyon, allowing an inspection team from the International Atomic Energy Agency to reenter the country, making public all its nuclear programs, including the extraction of plutonium from nuclear fuel rods, and further discussions with other members of the six-party talks.
Judging from what they said and the way they looked after their meeting, it seemed like Mr. Kim and Mr. Hill have almost reached an agreement on the first steps to be taken. Advancing the talks to the next step, they even deal with the issue of normalizing relations, something that North Korea longs for. It appears that Mr. Kim suggested they skip the interim step of opening liaison offices and establish official diplomatic relations immediately.
From a political and military perspective, securing diplomatic ties with the United States is a sure way for North Korea to guarantee the safety of its governing regime. Meanwhile, for its economy, these ties secure survival and prosperity by opening the gates to international aid. And it is a short leap from building diplomatic ties to signing a peace treaty. North Korea’s revelation that it will offer information about its stock of highly enriched uranium is a carefully calculated gesture of goodwill toward the United States.
The issue of highly enriched uranium is difficult. It prompted the second nuclear crisis in October 2002 and the Bush administration was criticized because the February agreement did not mention it. North Korea has offered disclosure now because it wants to look like it is helping the U.S. administration.
The euphoria in New York leaves us with ambiguous feelings. Normalization of ties between Washington and Pyongyang is vital for peace on the Korean Peninsula. Bilateral talks between Seoul and Pyongyang, Pyongyang and Washington, Pyongyang and Tokyo and Washington and Beijing plus the next round of six-party talks and ministerial-level talks are all part of a necessary process for clearing away remnants of the Cold War and securing peace in the region.
That President George W. Bush has altered his hard-line policy toward North Korea is to be welcomed, and North Korea’s response has also been encouraging.
We hope that Washington and Pyongyang will soon reconcile with each other, but on the other hand we are nervous about the excessive speed of that reconciliation.
Establishing diplomatic ties with Pyongyang is the best reward that Washington can offer in return for North Korea’s curtailment of its nuclear ambitions. If Washington establishes official ties with Pyongyang, officials from Tokyo will be on the plane to Pyongyang in a New York minute.
If North Korea wins official ties with Washington without abolishing its nuclear arms, will Pyongyang keep its side of the bargain and give up its nuclear weapons in their entirety? Nobody knows. It may or may not. However, it remains important for the United States to negotiate with patience, in the belief that it can make North Korea return rapidly to the status of a non-nuclear power.
Even if North Korea breaks its promise to abandon its nuclear devices, the United States’ security is not directly threatened. But things are different for South Korea.
If North Korea’s status as a nuclear state is accepted in the international community by default then, by the time South Korea takes over wartime control of its military from the United States and the Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command is dismantled, the South will be exposed to the North’s threats of nuclear aggression whenever there is a crisis in inter-Korean relations.
For diplomatic ties with Pyongyang to be normalized before the North dismantles its nuclear program runs the risk that the position taken by the United States, stating that the North’s nuclear weapons are unacceptable, will be changed to the position that their further proliferation is unacceptable.
The Bush administration gives the impression that it wants to resolve North Korea’s nuclear issue quickly because of the quagmire in Iraq. North Korea has also changed its strategy. It planned to wait until President Bush had left the White House but now it seems ready to normalize ties with Washington before Mr. Bush’s term ends. There is nothing wrong with that per se because the recent agreement at the six-party talks was a big milestone for peace on the Korean Peninsula and the Northeast Asian region.
However, we should be cautious about moral hazards when it comes to North Korea. To normalize ties with Pyongyang before it abandons its nuclear arms is a foolish measure, like putting the cart before the horse. North Korea has frequently broken its promises to international society and thus we cannot expect the cart to take this horse very far.

*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Young-hie
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