[Viewpoint]Surmounting stalemates

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[Viewpoint]Surmounting stalemates

With the appointment of Stephen Bosworth, former U.S. ambassador to Korea, as special representative for North Korea policy, the Obama administration is preparing to resume dealing with the North at the six-party talks, where their predecessors left off.

Presumably, the mission of these negotiations remains for North Korea to relinquish its nuclear arsenal.

Unfortunately, by the time Bosworth arrives in Pyongyang or China, the entire premise of denuclearization of the peninsula will be divorced from reality.

Hoping for the North to give up its atomic weapons and its plutonium is a waste of time.

That is, the talks have become no more than a diplomatic strategy to use the issue as a rationale for not doing anything other than to buy time until something miraculous happens - which, in a sense, is not too far removed from the apparent Pyongyang strategy for survival.

The best off-the-record rationalization I have heard is that the talks are in fact nothing more than a monitoring system on North Korea - something that has accidentally grown out of these negotiations.

The parleys have created a college of mutually acquainted diplomats from the five nations.

So should anything happen, including the implosion of the Pyongyang government, these fellows can immediately pick up the phones and quickly come to a meeting of minds on how collectively to deal with the event.

But, with a new man in the White House, it is conceivable that Ambassador Bosworth’s mission is not simply to carry on with the same old game. There may be a chance to play the game but with a new goal. For example, North Korea’s negotiating partners may wish to move away from this deadlock, but they will have to rethink their positions seriously.

It may now be worth considering how to work towards a peace treaty for the Korean Peninsula even without the precondition of North Korea giving up its nuclear lifesaver.

So far, insistence on Pyongyang discarding its atomic weapons has been based on some kind of principled diplomacy.

But from a cynical perspective, one may say this precondition has actually been based on face-saving for the previous Washington administration, given that the weapons came into existence during its watch.

This is not to say that former U.S. president Bush could have avoided this development, but the [2006] North Korean atomic test was both a setback and an embarrassment.

On the other hand, no one really knows if a peace treaty is actually possible, assuming that North Korea would have to recognize the legitimacy of South Korea.

Treaty negotiations could end up being the “son of the six party talks,” with Pyongyang applying similar strategies to delay and avoid recognizing Seoul as it has in sidestepping the termination of its nuclear program.

But the overall situation is pretty obvious to most DPRK watchers. There is little likelihood of the North relinquishing its nuclear security blanket.

Either the five other nations continue to beat on a dead horse, or consider turning their attention to a new strategy, which may end up being the next dead horse.

But we will never know what else may be possible until the six nations try something a bit more realistic than posturing over the current interminable stalemate.

From an American perspective, this may be the best time in decades to attempt a new strategy.

Much of South Korean anti-American sentiment has dissipated. The North Koreans are attempting to test-launch ballistic missiles while threatening war.

There is a charismatic new occupant in the White House. A popular former Peace Corps volunteer in Korea is serving as America’s ambassador in Seoul. The new Secretary of State has shown the capacity and confidence to rewrite many diplomatic rules in a way that both endears America to foreign populations while catching adversaries off guard.

In other words, today’s cards are definitely stacked in favor of United States?South Korea cooperation.

The obvious question is whether the North Koreans would dare give up the pretense that they have the only legitimate Korean government.

For North Korea to recognize the Republic of Korea, as a precondition or part of a peace treaty, would be refuting a fundamental cornerstone of its national creation myth.

And that could cause the Pyongyang rulers to fear they will be as domestically vulnerable as their entire nation might be without atomic arms.

Ultimately, such fears may cause negotiations to grind to a halt.

In the end, should we discover that peace treaty negotiations lead to nothing than another time-buying exercise, all six parties could then drop their pretenses.

The world would be free to move on and establish a better form of North Korean isolation than what we have in effect today. And ultimately, that could well be Stephen Bosworth’s new mission.

*The writer is the president of Soft Landing Consulting, a technology sales and marketing firm (www.softlandingkorea.com).

by Tom Coyner
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