[Viewpoint] Taking advantage of an opportunity

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[Viewpoint] Taking advantage of an opportunity

American special envoy Stephen Bosworth got what he came for in Pyongyang last week, according to government sources here.

Washington wanted to know if North Koreans were serious when it signed a joint statement declaring the abandonment of its nuclear weapons program in return for international energy and economic aid after six-party negotiations on Sept. 19, 2005.

The North Koreans nodded yes and added that they were willing to respect the terms. As of now, the 2005 joint statement remains as North Korea’s sole sealed promise to stop nuclear weapons development.

It’s clear that Bosworth was pleased to hear that the North Koreans still valued the agreement and felt obligated to fulfill its terms, sources have said.

At the same time, the North agreed that there are benefits inherent in the six-party platform - a dialogue channel among the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia devoted to eliminating the North’s nuclear arms through diplomatic means.

This was the North’s most positive response since it walked away from six-party talks in December 2008 after a dispute over verification of its denuclearization program. North Koreans had even pronounced the six-party talks “dead” after they were slapped with international sanctions by the United Nations Security Council on the heels of its second nuclear test.

The North labeled itself a nuclear power, qualified to bargain directly with the U.S. over a nuclear arms reduction deal.

Yet North Koreans, intentionally or not, acknowledged the value of the six-party talks through organizing a visit by Bosworth. After all, his stated mission from the onset was to bring the North back to the multilateral denuclearization talks.

Few can predict when North Koreans will return to the talks. Bosworth called for a strategic patience to allow the North more time to inch toward the negotiating table without losing face.

If it adopts this recommended patience, Washington is unlikely to be swayed by the latest development in Thailand where more than 30 tons of rocket-propelled grenades, missile tubes and other arms were found on an aircraft flying from North Korea.

North Korea’s suggestion that the six-party framework has advantages indicates a turning point in its nuclear leverage policy.

North Koreans had gained little by testing the new U.S. administration with a second nuclear test and long-range missile launches before waiting to learn the policies of the then-recently inaugurated Barack Obama.

An American expert on North Korean affairs who visited Pyongyang before Bosworth relayed that North Koreans more or less appeared resilient in the face of international sanctions. But North Korea’s rare parade of conciliatory gestures since summer suggests international sanctions were in fact exacting a heavy toll on the country.

In a dramatic turn, the North accepted President Bill Clinton’s visit and let two female American journalists walk free despite earlier charges that they had entered the country in order to spy.

UN Security Council Resolution 1718 passed in October 2006 condemning North Korea’s first nuclear test through sanctions fell short in detailing actions needed to ease the penalties.

President George W. Bush, cornered by opposition attacks over the ineffectiveness of financial sanctions, agreed to bilateral talks on the sidelines of the six-party negotiations, lifted sanctions and erased North Korea’s name from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

In this year’s resolution, however, the Security Council hammered out details for modifying or lifting sanctions depending on the degree of North Korea’s compliance in denuclearization.

Therefore, the U.S. cannot act alone in granting favors to the North without the consent of other United Nations member states. North Koreans are well aware of these terms. If they still willingly comply with the September 2005 joint statement commitments and return to the six-party talks, prospects for a breakthrough in the North Korean nuclear predicament are brighter than ever.

South Korea’s cool response to the conciliatory gestures from the North over the past months appears to have worked. Seoul wants to see the effect of sanctions culminate before it opens up toward Pyongyang. But the time has come for Seoul to modify its tone. It cannot afford to appear out of tune.

President Obama earned the Nobel Peace Prize before achieving real peace. He is now clearly obligated to show leadership in promoting global peace. North Korea will inevitably have to rejoin the six-party negotiations. Washington will push for dialogue with North Korea to champion and realize President Obama’s vision of a nuclear-free world.

That vision cannot materialize without first halting the nuclear weapons programs of North Korea and Iran. Obama is vying for success at the global nuclear security summit and UN nonproliferation review conference in the coming year.

South Korea should change its policy stance before it stands in the way of the thawing relations between the U.S. and North Korea.

*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Young-hie
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