[Viewpoint] It’s time to end Pyongyang’s gamesEach day brings more analysis of the North Korea situation. The writers of these articles display their academic training and years of experience, but most are anchored on the single assumption that the world must find a way to entice North Korea back to the six-party talks if there is to be any chance of resolving Northeast Asia’s most critical issue.
Like the Sunshine Policy, the six-party talks were a noble but ineffective effort. At best, the talks were a convenient cover for forming a network of experienced diplomats who can work together on short notice, and served as a means for some member nations’ politicians to kick the can down the road for their successors to deal with the North. But no matter how one may view the talks, they have provided a venue for North Korea to constantly set the agenda and timing to meet its own cynical ends.
Following this week’s watered-down presidential statement adopted by the United Nations Security Council, Pyongyang announced it was walking away from the six-party talks and boasted that it plans to resume its nuclear program.
As Yogi Berra once put it so well, it’s deja vu all over again.
Dealing with North Korea has generally been very much like being suckered into a high school game of chicken. For non-American readers, you may have seen the classic movie, “American Graffiti,” where hot rodders would speed toward each other on a road to see who would lose their nerve and swerve to safety first.
Imagine a reluctant America, representing the majority of the six-party talks’ members, being forced to play chicken. Pyongyang is flashing its headlights on its Russian-made Lada and is picking up speed, three miles out, rushing toward America’s Cadillac. Naturally, if the two vehicles collide, the Lada is going to be little more than a small pile of debris on the highway, but the Cadillac won’t leave looking very good either. So what is the Cadillac’s driver going to do? What is the man in the Lada counting on?
America has essentially three choices: one, increase its speed, expecting the faster and harder the Cadillac hits the Lada, the less damage to America; two, swerve out of the lane and let Pyongyang claim victory and tell the world America doesn’t have what it takes (and probably take home some kind of prize); or three, grow up and tell itself and others that chicken is kid stuff and that America refuses to play the game.
My guess is that the Lada driver expects America to take option two, fears but doesn’t believe the U.S. will select option one, and has calculated that it’s too late for America and the other members of the six-party talks to take option three.
But is it really too late? Or is it time to move on?
Just as four Somali pirates recently had the U.S. Navy at bay until the Seals were given the go-ahead to seize control of the situation, for three decades Pyongyang has played games - chicken, cat and mouse and others - with the rest of the world, and undoubtedly plans to continue to do so.
But, given recent North Korean behavior, America has a special opportunity to seize the initiative. And I mean just the United States. While other nations are interested in putting a stop to Pyongyang’s desperate machinations, the whole issue ultimately comes down to just two players - the U.S. and North Korea.
That means the U.S. has to go it alone, into direct talks with the North - and when it does, Washington must take the initiative, set the agenda and demand that talks take place at a time and venue of its choosing.
During these bilateral talks, America must consider South Korea’s interests to be equally important as those of America, working towards a peace treaty that recognizes the Republic of Korea as one of two legitimate governments on the Korean Peninsula. Failure in these negotiations, after a reasonable period of trying, would result in total isolation for Pyongyang, including forced inspections of goods moving in and out of North Korea.
Without further delay, the U.S. should do all it can through all possible channels to reinforce all UN resolutions sanctioning North Korean misbehavior. Together with South Korea, the U.S. should aggressively push the Proliferation Security Initiative.
Perhaps next time the North will succeed in detonating a fully functioning atomic device. But what then? Could they export it? Would it even be logistically possible? If such a weapon was exploded by anyone outside of North Korea, the explosion would leave a fingerprint - and Pyongyang knows what that would ultimately mean.
It’s important to remember that for all the bluster that spews out of North Korea, the Dear Leader has proven to be a physical coward, in his travel arrangements and his precautions whenever he feared the U.S. may take military action. He could blink a lot sooner and harder - but only if the allies for once took the initiative, instead of always being in reaction mode, as has been the case for the past three decades.
The fundamental point is this: It is time for the U.S., and not North Korea, to take control of diplomatic maneuvers on the peninsula.
*The writer is the president of Soft Landing Consulting, a technology sales and marketing firm.
by Tom Coyner
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