[Viewpoint] North’s tune has been heard before

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[Viewpoint] North’s tune has been heard before

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il told visiting Chinese envoy Dai Bingguo that he wanted to settle the nuclear issue through bilateral or multilateral talks, signaling a potential turnaround in his country’s foreign policy.

After the United Nations decided to impose sanctions against the North for its nuclear test in May, Pyongyang declared the international six-party talks were “dead” and insisted it would only talk directly with Washington.

Some suggest the potential shift in policy was the result of international sanctions with the backing of the North’s longest ally, China. But the latest strategy is an old one that has been employed at least three times on the international stage during the past two decades. It is an oft-used game, played by building tension overseas, then using the momentum to muster unity within to equip itself to face a more engaged foreign environment.

North Korea’s erratic behavior this year resembles its first nuclear stunt in early 1990s. The North threatened to walk out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty after the International Atomic Energy Agency suspected the communist regime was separating more plutonium than it reported to the agency. It subsequently declared a semi-war state and fired missiles, prompting the United States to consider bombing the North’s nuclear reactor site at Yongbyon. Kim Il Sung capitalized on the crisis to consolidate his authority and the regime that had been waning following the end of the Cold War.

He named his son Kim Jong-il to command the military and finalized the first hereditary power transfer. He then quelled overseas disquiet by inviting President Jimmy Carter to visit and pledging to freeze nuclear activities while suggesting an inter-Korean summit meeting.

Similar drama unfolded over the last year and a half with the two Koreas in confrontation and the North deciding to conduct a nuclear test and launch missiles. While fully engaged in a military and rhetorical offensive, the North revised its constitution, realigned its defense committee and reshuffled defense leadership to lay the grounds for a second father-to-son power succession.

At the peak of tension, the North arranged for former President Bill Clinton to visit Pyongyang in order to relay hopes for better relations with the United States, though the stated purpose was for Clinton to gain the release of detained American journalists. Then, when the North sent high-level officials to former President Kim Dae-jung’s funeral, the visitors suddenly turned into couriers for a message to the South’s president for high-level talks.

The difference between now and the 1990s is the China factor. During talks with Clinton, Kim Jong-il spoke only of direct dialogue with the United States and kept silent on returning to the six-party platform. He had reserved the six-party card for China. Washington, having read the card, handed over to China the onus of bringing North Korea back to the six-nation dialogue table.

North Korea kept China in the dark during its nuclear and missile provocations. As Kim Jong-il occupied himself with guests like Clinton and Hyundai Asan chairwoman Hyun Jeong-eun and with sending a verbal message to President Lee Myung-bak, Beijing’s chief nuclear negotiator Wu Dawei could not meet any key officials during his stay in Pyongyang. Chinese President Hu Jintao, fearing loss of authority in the region, soon sent State Councilor Dai. The North then spoke of returning to “multilateral talks” to save face for China, but still fell short of pinpointing the six-party negotiations where China acts as the host.

During the 2007 inter-Korean summit meeting, North Korea declared its plans to resolve the peace problem through tripartite or four-party talks without specifying the nations. Now, as then, Pyongyang has Beijing on a string.

North Korea wants to shake the international front against its nuclear aspirations through private talks with the United States that would offer normalized ties in exchange for the status of a nuclear state, like India and Pakistan. For such a purpose, Pyongyang has been sweet-talking separately to the United States, South Korea and China about different types of discussions. It probably is planning to charm the new Japanese government by raising the issue of the Japanese who were kidnapped by North Korea. North Korea won’t likely suddenly drop its nuclear ambition just because it returns to the six-party talks.

What can prove most effective in pressuring Pyongyang is a unified and unequivocal voice - coupled with action from South Korea, the United States, China, Japan and Russia - saying that going nuclear-free is the only option left for the North. If any of the five falls prey to North’s scheme, a third nuclear test is unavoidable and the international community would then have no choice but to acknowledge the North as a nuclear power.

*The writer is a professor at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Yoon Deok-min
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