[Viewpoint] Wen Jiabao’s two-faced tough talk

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[Viewpoint] Wen Jiabao’s two-faced tough talk

Kim Jong-il has won another victory. Despite the international outrage over North Korea’s second nuclear test and the resolve to sanction the country under UN Security Council resolutions, North Korea has emerged as a counterpart for dialogue and negotiations again.

At least, that was what Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao demanded other countries do at a press conference held in Beijing on Saturday.

He urged South Korea and Japan to start a dialogue with the North in a hurry. Defying diplomatic protocol, he went even a step further. He warned them: “There will be progress if the two countries make good use of this opportunity, but they will have to pay very dearly if they fail to use this chance now.”

But he failed to present evidence to support his diplomatic intimidation.

Negotiators from the United States are ready to embark on a mission to Pyongyang, and if things go as Prime Minister Wen demanded, South Korean and Japanese diplomats will be in line right behind them to catch a plane to the North.

It really is amazing. How could North Korea evade being the target of international sanctions, only four months after the adoption of the Security Council resolution, and emerge as a counterpart for dialogue and negotiations? What made it possible for the North to reverse the situation?

A clue to the reversal can be found in former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s visit to Pyongyang in August. When he met North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, Clinton recommended he allow Stephen Bosworth, the U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, to visit Pyongyang for negotiations. Later, North Korea extended an invitation to Bosworth through its New York channel. And the U.S. State Department demanded the North show its “intention to return to the six-nation talks” to facilitate the announcement of a plan for one-on-one negotiations.

Bill Clinton’s meeting with Kim Jong-il was a catalyst to China. Wu Dawei, the chairman of the six-party talks, visited Pyongyang to persuade the North to come back to the six-party talks on Aug. 17. One month later, Dai Bingguo, a state councilor of the Chinese government, visited Pyongyang as a special envoy of Chinese President Hu Jintao and met with Kim Jong-il. At a meeting with Dai, Kim Jong-il mentioned indirectly “his intention to return to the six-party talks,” as demanded by the U.S. State Department.

Subsequently, Kim Jong-il told visiting Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao on Oct. 7 that “North Korea is willing to return to the six-party talks depending on the progress in bilateral talks with the United States.” It has been confirmed that China still has a strong influence on North Korea.

Considering that the North was embarrassed at the efficiency of the sanctions under UN Security Council Resolution 1874, it is no exaggeration to say that Kim Jong-il has won another victory by evading sanctions with a mere promise that he would reverse his earlier decision to boycott the six-party talks.

The U.S. State Department says repeatedly that sanctions will be enforced without interruption even if the U.S. starts dialogue with the North. It is difficult, however, to find a precedent where sanctions were actually imposed in parallel with negotiations.

Even worse, there is a big gap between the U.S. position - that the bilateral talks are a means to induce the North back to the six-party talks - and the preconditions set by Kim Jong-il for multilateral talks. The Americans must be aware of the differences. Yet Washington has no other choice but to accept Beijing’s advice, since it needs Chinese assistance on the North Korean nuclear issue.

China must also know that Kim Jong-il’s promise for multilateral talks is nothing but lip service and that there can be no change in the North’s position. Nevertheless, Wen praised Kim Jong-il for making promises of denuclearization and participation in multilateral talks. Summing up Wen’s remarks at Saturday’s press conference, it seems he has full confidence in Kim’s intention to “denuclearize,” almost as if he had a reason he wasn’t revealing to give credence to Kim’s words.

The State Department will soon announce plans for a visit of a U.S. delegation to Pyongyang for the U.S.-North Korea bilateral talks that Kim Jong-il demanded take place. As long as the talks are held under the blessing of the Chinese prime minister, no one among the participants in the six-party talks will say no to a one-on-one between the United States and North Korea. However, international society will not let the sanctions on North Korea loosen.

Sooner or later, the world will come to know whether Kim Jong-il’s diplomacy has made Wen Jiabao dance to his tune, or if Kim has actually succumbed to the pressure of international sanctions.

If Kim has actually decided to give up the nuclear program and accept denuclearization, Wen’s undiplomatic intimidation that “South Korea and Japan will have to pay very dearly,” which under other circumstances could trigger diplomatic conflict, will be remembered as bona fide advice to China’s neighboring countries.

If not, however, not only will Wen, who marched to Kim Jong-il’s drum, have his reputation tarnished, but China’s prestige will also be diminished. An even more serious problem is that the neighboring countries of a nuclear-armed North Korea will have to, as Prime Minister Wen warned, pay very dearly - but not for their diplomacy. Instead they will pay for the mistake of not enforcing sanctions until the North gave up its nuclear program.

Prime Minister Wen should take responsibility for his words and share with the rest of us the reason he believes in Kim Jong-il’s commitment to denuclearize this time.


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

by Park Sung-soo


Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, left, hugs North Korean leader Kim Jong-il upon his arrival in Pyongyang in this frame from an Oct. 4 video. The subsequent talks Kim held with Wen led the Chinese premier to encourage renewed negotiations at a summit later that week with heads of state from Korea and Japan. [AP]
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