[Viewpoint]Wising up to Pyongyang’s promisesThe diplomatic skill of the Kim Jong-il regime in North Korea is quite remarkable. It has recorded many brilliant victories during the nuclear negotiations, including coming from behind to beat the Bush administration.
At the end of his term in office, President Bush removed North Korea from its list of terrorism-sponsoring states. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Christopher Hill, chief U.S. negotiator at the six-way talks, initiated the measure. It seemed that they were, in return, going to get a concession from the North which would allow U.S. inspectors to collect soil samples from North Korean nuclear facilities. These two both believed in the verbal promise the North Koreans made and persuaded President Bush to remove it from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. However, North Korea did not keep its end of the bargain, despite being removed from the list of terrorism sponsors.
At the end of last year, Rice said, “Nobody believes North Korea. Only fools believe North Korea.” But the regret over the North’s betrayal and the self-reflection came rather belatedly. Her words amount to an acknowledgment that she was a “fool” in negotiations with North Korea. Rice and Hill were tricked by promises from Pyongyang.
North Korea has already started playing games with the incoming U.S. government under President-elect Barack Obama. North Korea’s New Year’s Day joint editorial this year was aimed at testing the U.S. reaction. The editorial agitated South Koreans to stage anti-government rallies but refrained from criticizing the U.S. President-elect Obama said, during presidential race, “I am willing to meet personally with Kim Jong-il.” The editorial is an indirect reaction to Obama’s flexible attitude.
Obama is different from Bush. He is redefining the leadership of the U.S. on the basis of diplomatic rather than military power. He has something in common with Bush, too. That is, he will not tolerate “North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons.” As North Korea is not giving up its nuclear weapons, the North’s game will repeat its complications, ruptures and negotiations.
Human rights represent Obama’s identity. International expectations on his ethical leadership are high. Human rights will be raised as a new issue during negotiations with North Korea. Pyongyang has not even solved the basic human rights of providing food and shelter to North Korean residents. The average height of North Korean youths is around 15 centimeters shorter than South Korean youths. There are even people who lament that North and South Korean people have become different races due to starvation and sub-standard medical facilities in the North. Their political rights are at another miserable low.
The theme of Obama’s inauguration speech is “a new birth of freedom.” It was taken from the Gettysburg address of former President Abraham Lincoln. The speech emphasized democracy and equal opportunities to enjoy basic human rights.
It will be difficult for the Obama administration to evade the miserable human rights situation in North Korea. It will demand Pyongyang focus more on food and shelter than nuclear weapons. Thus, the U.S. and Korean human rights organizations will take sides. In the later part of the 1970s, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s human rights diplomacy gave the Park Chung Hee administration a headache. Carter was a democrat, like Obama. But Obama will give Kim Jong-il a headache. Pushing human rights will be more effective than Bush’s hard-line military stance. It is a detour strategy.
The problem of Kim Jong-il’s health is ongoing. North Korea cajoled the Bush administration during such a situation. It has almost invincible negotiation skills. The unique accomplishments of North Korea are partially due to the tepid attitude of the Korean government for the past 10 years. The Roh Moo-hyun administration shook the Korea-U.S. alliance for a while with the Sunshine Policy and pro-North Korean left-wing groups fanned anti-U.S. sentiment among people.
However, the situation is different now. Obama is stimulating the imagination of Korea’s youths. The image of the U.S. has improved. The high-handed Bush administration is leaving. The extreme left has lost its attractive anti-U.S. propagandist slogans. North Korea used anti-U.S. movements in South Korea as leverage in negotiations with the U.S. Obama has emerged as an obstacle to this strategy. The majority of the Korean people who were tricked by the mad cow disease ghost stories has changed. They have detected the shadow of anti-American groups hiding behind the candles. The power of the candlelight forces has withered. The Lee Myung-bak administration will not be easily bullied by North Korea. It is planning to build a new framework for South and North Korean relations.
North Korea will try direct negotiations with Obama. However, the country that can actually support North Korea financially is South Korea. Therefore, there are clear limits in the North’s tactics of dealing with the U.S. alone, while excluding the South.
The Korean Peninsula has now entered a transitional phase of forming a new framework for negotiations.
*The writer is a senior columnist of the Joong-Ang Ilbo.
by Park Bo-gyoon