[Viewpoint] What’s needed for U.S.-North talks

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[Viewpoint] What’s needed for U.S.-North talks

In the pictures released by official North Korean media, Kim Jong-il - reportedly in ill health - was all smiles, explaining something energetically to a former U.S. President. Bill Clinton, in Pyongyang to rescue two U.S. journalists from 12 years hard labor in a North Korean gulag, seemed to be listening attentively.

It was a scene that defied expectation. Conventional wisdom would dictate that the one who is asking for amnesty tries to please the one who is granting it; the former wags his or her tail, while the latter arrogantly makes a gesture of leniency. In this case, the situation is reversed. It is unclear which side is asking for a pardon.

There are meaningful implications within this scene. Although the Obama administration repeatedly said former President Clinton went to the North on a “private” mission for humanitarian purposes, the Clinton-Kim meeting itself symbolizes bilateral contact between the two countries, notably at a time not long after the UN Security Council adopted a strong resolution calling upon its members to inspect cargo vessels and airplanes suspected of carrying military-related materials in or out of the country.

It does not matter whether Clinton had the authority to negotiate with the North, or carried a message from President Obama. What matters is that the American delegation led by Clinton held a meeting with leading members of the North Korean government, including Kim Yang-gon, the director of the Workers Party’s Unification Front Department, and Kang Sok-ju, first vice minister of the Foreign Ministry, whom both accompanied Kim Jong-il.

That is why former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote recently in the New York Times, “Already speculation is rife that the Clinton visit inaugurates the prospect of a change of course of American policy and of a bilateral U.S.-North Korea solution.”

There is no objection to a dialogue with North Korea. What is worrisome is that the North has a track record of making use of a “dialogue” when it was eager to change course. Once more, there are signs of intrigue. First of all, the atmosphere of the meeting was not one between somebody granting amnesty and somebody pleading. It was more like a salesman flattering a potential buyer into buying his merchandise. Of course, Kim Jong-il is trying to sell his nuclear program once again. He has no other choice, because his tactics of firing missiles, testing a nuclear bomb, threatening military provocations and other forms of brinkmanship have failed to frighten the U.S. and others in the international community.

This time, however, it will not be easy for the reclusive dictator to induce distrustful Americans to join a bilateral dialogue. While Kim Jong-il could not take care of state affairs while his health was poor, the North not only lost the chance to enjoy a “honeymoon” with the Obama administration by accepting an offer of dialogue, but also made some consecutively awful mistakes. It broke off six-party talks, fired missiles, tested a nuclear bomb and threatened the UN resolution with military force.

The U.S. Democrats who used to criticize the Bush administration’s hard-line North Korea policy were so upset by the North’s provocative behavior that they changed position to favor pressuring Pyongyang.

How, then, did Kim propose to sell the nuclear program for the third time? Outside of the North, the exact content of the proposal would only be known to those participating in any meeting between Obama and Clinton, but the gist of it could be as follows:

“North Korea had observed faithfully the terms and conditions of the 1994 Geneva Agreement. It was the United States that broke it. If only Washington did not promote a hostile policy toward us, and fulfilled obligations of supplying heavy oil and constructing light-water reactors, we would have fulfilled our denuclearization obligation. Since the Bush administration promoted a hostile policy toward us and failed to fulfill its duties, we had no choice but take self-defense measures.

“Now, we must return to square one. Let’s nullify all that happened during Bush era and go back to the year 2000 when you, as president at the time, considered an official visit to Pyongyang. If President Obama decides to visit Pyongyang, we will give him a heartfelt welcome. If Washington wants to inspect all nuclear sites in North Korea, we will open any desired location and accept inspections.”

It is nothing but well-worn propaganda to place the blame on the Bush administration. But the last sentence makes some sense. North Korea has so far refused to open suspected sites other than the ones they already reported for inspection. If they open all suspected facilities for inspection, it will help the United States accomplish its short-term goal of containing North Korea’s nuclear know-how.

By now, the Obama administration must have completed its evaluations of any proposal. Signs of the slight changes in Washington’s position can be gleaned from brief remarks made by American officials. Robert Wood, the State Department’s deputy spokesman, said, “Simply, what the North needs to do is live up to its obligations,” if it wants a dialogue with the U.S. This stands in contrast with the U.S.’s earlier position requiring that the North agree to irreversible denuclearization.

It is understandable that the Obama administration might feel it’s burdensome to reject Kim’s proposal. But the whole world, especially neighboring countries like Japan and South Korea, wants concrete evidence that can prove North Korea’s commitment to denuclearization.

It is important to contain North Korea’s nuclear know-how, but it is more important for them to get proof that the North has discarded nuclear material and given up on its ambition to be a nuclear state.

The resumption of the U.S.-North Korea dialogue would be welcomed. But it is a mistake to expect a constructive dialogue with the ones who threw out all the existing agreements. The Obama administration may consider Kim Jong-il’s proposal positively. But it must let the North know that it needs to restore international confidence first. North Korea should apologize for declaring previous agreements invalid, and it must honor all agreements and UN resolutions related to its nuclear program.

*The writer is a visiting professor of media studies at Myongji University.

by Park Sung-soo

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