[Viewpoint] A tough road for ‘grand bargain’

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[Viewpoint] A tough road for ‘grand bargain’

Leaders of South Korea, China, and Japan standing side by side recently in Beijing and vowing closer ties in economic and regional affairs for both the present and future had greater meaning and international force than any produced at past trilateral summits.

Leaders of the three neighboring countries have been regularly meeting since 1999, helping to evolve the three-way relationship. But the recent meeting took place against the stark backdrop of the North Korean nuclear predicament.

North Korea had declared its withdrawal from the six-party negotiations - the main forum aiming to denuclearize its nuclear forces - after the parties involved joined the United Nations Security Council decision to slap sanctions on the North following its surprising nuclear test in May.

But just before his scheduled meeting with South Korean and Japanese leaders, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao made a three-day visit to Pyongyang and held in-depth talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. Fresh news from Pyongyang quickly caught the attention of South Korean and Japanese leaders.

Pyongyang has turned exceptionally benign and conciliatory toward Seoul and Washington in recent months. It may be attempting to charm its way out of the suffocating trade sanctions while inducing cash inflows from the South through a resumed tourism program and industrial joint ventures. But whatever its motivations, Pyongyang’s shift from belligerence bodes positively for the stalemate in multilateral talks to end its nuclear ambitions.

Before his visit to Beijing, President Lee Myung-bak floated a new and daring idea he called “the grand bargain” to address the nuclear quandary. He had met new Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama before the trilateral meeting to explain and seek his support for the inclusive package that offers security guarantees and economic aid to the North if that country irrevocably eliminates nuclear weapons.

We naturally expected a display of support and welcome, or at least some measure of response to the new formula, from Chinese and Japanese leaders during the summit. But unfortunately, the joint declaration and press conference offered no evidence that the grand bargain proposal had been considered or debated during the talks. Prime Minister Wen appeared still excited from talks with the North’s Kim. He emphasized that Kim wanted to mend fences with South Korea, the United States and Japan and urged the three countries to respond to the North’s conciliatory gestures.

“If we miss this opportunity, then we may have to make even more efforts further down the road,” he told South Korean and Japanese leaders, doing more than simply hyping Kim’s message.

Wen made no reference or comment to Lee’s proposal during the meeting or press conferences. Hatoyama, in the joint conference, expressed support for Lee’s plan to meet the North’s nuclear threats, but added the grand bargain package should not stop at the nuclear issue, but also address missile threats and the North’s abduction of Japanese nationals.

In essence, Hatoyama was backing Lee’s grand bargain proposal on condition that it guarantees the return of Japanese abductees. He had his national interests at heart - the threat of short-range missiles and the safety of Japanese citizens - for an inclusive design to dismantle the North’s nuclear program and ensure a nuclear-free peninsula. What I want to know is does the grand bargain really comprise efforts to bring the Japanese nationals home? Seoul and Beijing also appear to be striking different chords. President Lee reiterated what’s important is not getting North Korea back to the negotiating table, but making it surrender its nuclear ambitions. But Beijing is mainly devoted to coaxing Pyongyang back to the six-party talks.

The three leaders unequivocally agreed on one thing - working toward denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula through dialogue and negotiations. Of course, no one ever expected them to turn down peace. But this fundamental agreement also encompasses a serious loophole and differences in perspective.

We primarily aim to work peacefully toward eliminating North Korea’s nuclear weapons and programs, but the agreement specifies “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” This is exactly what the North has been targeting in its multilateral talks. It wants to turn the focus to comprehensive denuclearization, or nuclear arms cuts in the region that would include eliminating the U.S. pledge of a nuclear umbrella over the peninsula.

An arms cut deal would suggest barter between two nuclear powers, which would tacitly recognize the North as a nuclear weapons state.

North Korea called the grand bargain proposal an “unreliable dream.” The United States remains evasive. To save the backbone of the proposal - the irreversible end to the North’s nuclear campaign - we need to study two options. One, we must make destruction of nuclear weapons a prerequisite to economic aid and security guarantees. Two, we must offer aid as dismantlement occurs. We must also decide in what stage of the development we will offer an order to normalize ties with North Korea.

*The writer is a senior columnist at the JoongAng Ilbo.

Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Young-hie

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