[Viewpoint] On solutions to the North problem

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[Viewpoint] On solutions to the North problem

American special envoy Stephen Bosworth last week stepped off a plane from Pyongyang after a rare high-profile visit to North Korea that produced hopeful signs.

He had a tight schedule waiting for him after the three days of talks in North Korea, explaining the details to other six-party members in Seoul, Beijing, Tokyo and Moscow.

Though 70 years old, Bosworth was handpicked by President Barack Obama to conduct the first senior-level one-on-one talks between Washington and Pyongyang in over a year.

But trying to orchestrate a deal with crafty and ever-changing North Korean bargainers in the context of the six-party platform must have been strenuous and frustrating even for a veteran diplomat like Bosworth.

He left for Pyongyang with a strong warning from the South Korean government that the Pyongyang meeting must not lean toward manufacturing a peace treaty between North Korea and the U.S. He had to sit through the old familiar rhetoric that the Americans were to blame for North Korea’s resort to nuclear arms for deterrence and therefore must respond by signing a peace treaty with Kang Sok-ju, the first vice foreign minister, in Pyongyang. North Koreans want to use a peace treaty as the stepping stone to rejoin nuclear disarmament talks while South Koreans regard it as a last resort.

Subsequent events further complicated matters. An airplane carrying tons of North Korean weapons was seized by Thai authorities as Bosworth continued his mission of debriefing other six-party members.

North Korea blatantly violated the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1874 banning trade of weapons as soon as Bosworth flew out of Pyongyang. North Koreans are expected to loudly complain about the seizure regardless of what was found. Their erratic behavior could likely upset Bosworth’s ultimate design to bring North Korea back to the multilateral negotiating table and possibly upset U.S.-North Korean relations. The two countries still have a long way to go before they understand one another. Simply, it will take more time to formulate a new doctrine that brings peace to the Korean Peninsula.

The South Korean government may be sitting in the dugout right now, but it should nevertheless focus on the game. It carries the burden of responding actively to developments in North Korea-U.S. relations and maintaining control of affairs concerning the peninsula.

North Koreans may wage a war of nerves with their American counterparts over the weapon confiscation in Thailand that was reportedly prompted by U.S. intelligence. But they can also use the momentum from the Bosworth talks to establish a diplomatic channel with Washington. South Korea and the U.S. share a united goal of quelling North Korea’s nuclear ambition. But their methods and strategies to attain that goal may differ slightly.

The North Korean nuclear problem is an imperative issue for South Korea while it is a part of its broader world containment strategy for the U.S. The Obama administration wants primarily to cajole North Koreans back to the six-party commitments while the current Korean government seeks the more fundamental solution of ending the North’s nuclear program.

In essence, President Lee Myung-bak’s outline of the “grand bargain” and America’s envisioning of a “comprehensive package” both pursue disarmament in return for security guarantees and economic rewards. Yet insistence on separate wording implies there is a subtle difference in perspectives between the two countries.

It would make sense for the South Korean government to carefully weigh its alliance status with the U.S. and its policy on North Korea. The grand-bargain, or all-inclusive, approach cannot be an immediate panacea. Even if North Koreans agree on the South’s prescribed aid-for-disarmament deal, follow-up actions inevitably would unfold on a quid pro quo and step-by-step basis.

Specifics and detailed actions will get more work done than intransigence over an idea. The government should tap simple, soft and small options on the sidelines of its campaign for a grand bargain. In a global context, a mix of grand and small bargains should accompany the two-track policy to solve the North Korean nuclear conundrum.

*The writer is a professor of political and diplomatic affairs at Chung-Ang University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Lee Jo-won
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