[Viewpoint]A strange dance between rivalsTo President George W. Bush of the United States, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il was a “disgusting” pygmy-like character, a tyrant who lets his people starve and suppresses their human rights. Bush saw him as someone not worth dealing with. What does he think about North Korea now?
The United States has struggled hard, even to the point of fatigue, to release North Korean funds frozen at Banco Delta Asia in Macao for the past several months. Actually, Washington became mired in its own sanctions, which labeled the funds in the bank illicit, the product of drug trafficking and counterfeiting.
After struggling to find a solution and pondering every possible means, Washington finally found a way out. It was able to hand over the money to North Korea only last month. Washington gave repeated assurances in the past that there would be no direct talks with North Korea. Now, however, Washington is eager to have a tete-a-tete discussion with North Korea.
Christopher Hill, the U.S. chief delegate to the six-party talks, and North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye-gwan look like lovers who fell for each other late in life. In January, they had an exclusive, secret meeting in Berlin. In March, Hill invited Kim to Washington and treated him like a royal envoy. The State Department provided Kim with a limousine that high-ranking foreign dignitaries normally get, as well as eight bodyguards from the State Department, who accompanied him everywhere he went. Hill hosted a luncheon for Kim and his party at a deluxe restaurant in Manhattan. To the surprise of the State Department’s accountant, the restaurant bill, which Hill paid by credit card, exceeded $4,000.
In return, North Korea invited Hill to Pyongyang and granted him the honor of staying at the Baehwawon Guest House, the official state guest house for heads of state. Hill later said, “I received special treatment.”
The six-party talks held in Beijing last week were, in essence, a bilateral meeting between North Korea and the United States. Kim and Hill held secret meetings, visited each other’s embassies and dined together during the talks. They met each other frequently. It was like a reunion of lovers. Chosun Shinbo, the news organ of the pro-North Korean General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, reported, “The most significant aspect of the talks this time was that they were held under the joint initiative of North Korea and the United States.” It was not a surprise, the paper added, that “the talks were actually held in a two-plus-four format.” This means the four other participants at the talks were there only as groomsmen.
Kim and Hill must have discussed almost everything in their secret talks. The two have seemed to draw a consensus that the target ― the completion of a report on North’s nuclear facilities and the disablement of its nuclear facilities by the end of the year ― is not impossible to achieve. Leaving Beijing, Kim said, “North Korea is not a parasite that lives on heavy oil.” He added, “We need light-water reactors before we move up to the dismantlement stage.” But a light-water reactor is an issue that will be raised after the disablement of the nuclear facilities.
Instead of the term “highly enriched uranium program,” which is directly related to nuclear bombs, the United States nowadays uses the term “uranium enrichment program.” It sounds likely that the United States will apply flexible standards when the North submits a list of its nuclear programs. The disablement of five nuclear facilities, including the 5-megawatt nuclear reactor which is nothing but a heap of scrap iron, is not hard to do. There is only a matter of difference in the methods of disablement, depending on the type of engine. If things go smoothly, it is possible that the second stage of the agreement signed on Feb. 13 ― the disablement of North Korea’s nuclear facilities ― could be implemented before the end of the year.
The problem lies in the next stage, the last of the agreement. This is the dismantlement of nuclear bombs, the detonation devices and the plutonium now in the possession of North Korea, as well as all nuclear-related facilities.
A large part of the undisclosed talks between Kim and Hill are related to this final stage. They might have talked about give-and-take and reached a mutual consensus. The United States might have sounded out the possibility of striking a deal with the North by offering such incentives as the withdrawal of economic sanctions, removal from the list of terrorism-sponsoring countries, the normalization of diplomatic relations, the conclusion of a peace treaty and the provision of light-water reactors.
If Kim Jong-il, the chairman of North Korea’s National Defense Commission, decides to abandon the nuclear development program in exchange for a guarantee of the regime’s safety and economic assistance, the North Korean nuclear problem will be resolved during President Bush’s term of office.
There is no knowing whether the United States has really changed its policy toward North Korea, or is just pretending it has. That’s because North Korea has annoyed Washington so much, especially by testing a nuclear bomb.
I wonder whether the marriage of these two, who found love late in their lives, will end up with the birth of a precious child, a deformed monstrosity or even nothing at all. We should not stand in their way, but we can’t be satisfied with the role of an onlooker who gives applause and pays money for the show. It doesn’t seem like any summit meeting between South and North Korea, even held, will bring about a useful solution to the situation. There is a saying that a love affair late in one’s life is more uncontrollable than one during youth.
*The writer is an editorial writer and traveling correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Bae Myung-bok
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