[Overseas view]On the way to the forum

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[Overseas view]On the way to the forum

John Negroponte, United States deputy secretary of state, traveled to Korea, Japan and China early this month to exchange views on how to establish a new Northeast Asian security forum. The six-party talks established a working group led by Russia following a landmark Feb. 2007 agreement to explore this possibility, but the idea has a longer history.
South Korea’s former president, Roh Tae-woo, proposed it back in the early 1990s and the Japanese floated the idea in 1997. I remember working on one of the first concept papers for the six-party talks in the U.S. National Security Council in late 2002. We speculated that the nuclear negotiations might also eventually yield new dialogue on broader security issues among the major powers of the region.
There is a new energy behind Negroponte’s efforts because Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is reportedly interested in trying to hold a six-party foreign ministers’ meeting to formally launch the security forum before the end of this year. The Russians leading the working group are also said to be eager to move forward. Japan and to some extent South Korea are more cautious. China appears ready to move if the United States is.
The goal of establishing a Northeast Asian security forum is a good one and the process of debating the right approach has been a useful confidence-building exercise and has probably taught the North Koreans a great deal about the views of the other parties. But this is also a good time to pause and consider whether formalization of that process carries more risks than benefits at this point.
The Russians are said to want a document announcing the “principles” that would guide the forum. That would presumably be what the six foreign ministers will announce later in the year.
The United States, Japan and Korea will likely press for inclusion of denuclearization and respect for international law as key principles. But China will resist any effort to include human rights and will want inclusion of principles of non-interference in internal affairs and mutual respect for existing systems. The Russians will be sympathetic to that view. Who knows what Pyongyang will demand, but the North Koreans are likely to push for the inclusion of principles that are even more difficult for the United States, Japan or South Korea to accept. Then there is the question of whether a peace regime is included.
The result will probably be a set of principles that are fairly homogenized and touch on the parties’ lowest common denominator. And that may end up carrying more risk than benefit.
There are three problems. First, even if the new document includes denuclearization as a principle, the reality is that North Korea will be entering the forum already in fundamental violation of that principle. Precisely because the current nuclear deal being hashed-out with North Korea covers only the plutonium at Yongbyon and not weapons, highly enriched uranium or proliferation. Pyongyang will argue that it has been accepted by the other parties as a nuclear weapons state, albeit one that is expected to eventually give up its nuclear weapons. If there are other innocuous-sounding principles listed such as “mutual respect” or “non-aggression,” then Pyongyang will be sure to argue that these carry the same weight as denuclearization and use that as an excuse to delay.
Rather than complementing the denuclearization process, an accord on a Northeast Asian forum could end up becoming an obstacle.
The second problem will be how to incorporate human rights concerns. The model people point to is the Helsinki Accord with the Soviet Union in the 1970s, which included principles on human rights that dissidents behind the Iron Curtain used in later years to sustain international support for an end to repression. It is hard to imagine what language China, Russia and North Korea would agree to in this area at this point, but without it, the United States, Japan and South Korea could risk inadvertently signaling that human rights and human dignity are no longer priorities with respect to North Korea.
The third problem is the U.S. presidential election. The deal tentatively concluded in Singapore between Assistant State Secretary Christopher Hill and North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan is highly controversial in the United States. Both John McCain and Barack Obama have expressed reservations, McCain more than Obama.
There is a risk that the outgoing Bush administration might announce broad principles that the incoming administration finds incomplete or unacceptable. The desperation to have former President Bill Clinton go to Pyongyang at the end of his term made the incoming Bush administration even more skeptical about diplomacy with North Korea. Sometimes it is better to sacrifice ambition for continuity in the closing months of a president’s term.
It may be that none of the language described above gets into the document establishing a Northeast Asian forum, but one can easily imagine that exactly this kind of wording is in play, given the parties’ previous positions. At a minimum, the U.S. and South Korean governments should err on the side of caution and modesty when considering the content, timing and staging of the new forum.
The reality is that with North Korea in the forum, very little will be achieved in the near-term anyway. So it is better to take a long-term view of this process and not risk inadvertently sending the wrong signals to North Korea or our own citizens.
It is important that any forum designed for confidence-building not distract us from the reality in the North.

*The writer is a former senior director for Asian affairs at the U.S. National Security Council.

by Michael Green
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