[Overseas view]Five parties must keep trusting each other

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[Overseas view]Five parties must keep trusting each other

International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors have returned to North Korea. The six-party talks have resumed with an ambitious agenda: securing full disclosure of North Korea’s nuclear assets and the disablement of all facilities, setting timetables for the delivery of aid and scheduling a foreign ministers’ meeting. Pyongyang appears focused on being removed from Washington’s list of states that sponsor terrorism, negotiating an easing of the economic sanctions and exploring the possibility of a peace treaty ending the Korean War.
This certainly sounds like progress, but while moving forward on the long road of disarmament, it is important to remember three key lessons from the recent history of dealing with North Korea. First, stay engaged to minimize North Korea’s provocations and instability. Second, remain firm as Pyongyang looks to exploit differences and weaknesses among concerned countries and tends to push the envelope when not deterred by consequences. The third point is perhaps the most important at this juncture for South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the United States: the five parties should not sacrifice trust among themselves for short-term gains with North Korea.
For the six-party talks to succeed, North Korea must be convinced that ending its nuclear programs and opening to international economy are actions in its own interest, not ploys to attack or cause the collapse of North Korea.
The Sept. 19, 2005 joint statement recognizes the need to build this trust, calling for disarmament actions matched in stages with economic and diplomatic rewards.
The tragedy is that progress with Pyongyang has historically exacerbated divisions among its neighbors ― divisions that North Korea then uses to its advantage. In key cases, positive steps with North Korea proved ephemeral, while the engagement initiatives in question damaged trust among the five parties.
In 1994, the United States bilaterally negotiated the Geneva Framework Agreement with North Korea. Seoul decided it could not count on Washington to represent South Korean interests and resolved to deal directly with Pyongyang whenever possible. Although the Framework Agreement successfully quelled a nuclear crisis, South Korea and Japan ended up largely financing a deal that was doomed to unravel between Pyongyang and Washington.
In 2001, Japan got ahead of the pack on engaging North Korea. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi arranged a trip to Pyongyang to attempt a breakthrough in normalizing Japan-North Korea relations. Washington had reservations about the trip, as did Seoul. Ultimately, Japan’s efforts backfired over the controversy on abducted Japanese citizens.
In the years since, South Korea has led efforts to build trust with North Korea, pursuing ministerial meetings, joint economic projects and cultural exchanges. While these efforts have yet to soften North Korea’s policies, U.S.-South Korea and South Korea-Japan relations were strained by what Washington and Tokyo saw as the unconditional engagement of a nuclear and missile proliferator.
Earlier this year, Washington employed behind-the-scenes diplomacy to reach the Feb. 13 agreement and resolve the Banco Delta Asia financial dispute with North Korea. But Washington’s flexibility came soon after North Korea’s internationally rebuked missile launches and nuclear tests, and Tokyo worried the United States might abandon Japanese interests on the abduction issue or even quietly accept North Korea as a de facto nuclear power. Tokyo has abstained from contributing to the present aid package linked with North Korean steps toward disarmament. If the United States, South Korea, China, Japan and Russia have learned from experience, the five parties will no longer sacrifice trust among themselves for short-term advances with North Korea.
The United States should not pursue military-to-military talks with North Korea outside the six-party framework, as such talks would make South Korea, Japan and China anxious about being excluded from negotiations over a peace regime.
China should not look to patch up its relations with North Korea by giving aid and assurances to offset its hard line after Pyongyang’s October 2006 nuclear test. Doing so would damage Beijing’s credibility for facilitating the six-party talks.
Japan should not press the abduction issue at the expense of progress on denuclearization. Certainly, Pyongyang must account for missing Japanese citizens in order to gain the benefits of normalized relations with Tokyo. But five-party trust will be damaged if Japanese politicians are perceived to be using the abduction issue for domestic consumption.
Finally, South Korea should not rush into a North-South summit, especially if such a meeting has more to do with South Korea’s December presidential election than it does with improving security on the Korean Peninsula.
North Korea is skilled at producing a sense of crisis, using wedge tactics, and playing to the domestic politics of other countries to command a higher price for its cooperation. Gains with North Korea often prove transitory, while damage to trust among the five parties detracts from necessary policy coordination. Diplomatic progress with North Korea need not come at the expense of five-party trust.

*The writer, a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University, is a member of the Pacific Forum CSIS Young Leaders program and is currently a visiting scholar at UCLA.

by Leif-Eric Easley
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