Calling the North’s bluff

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Calling the North’s bluff

If we were to compare the six-party talks to a game of poker it would be safe to say that everyone involved has a serious gambling problem and all except North Korea are terrible poker players. Since the first North Korean nuclear crisis in the 1990s, the international community has hoped, and pretended, that at the end of the day North Korea would fall in line with the rest of civilization and abandon its nuclear ambitions for good.

Negotiations were held and, starting with the Sept. 19 agreement in 2005, a string of agreements was engineered. There was hope that everyone had learned a lesson from that first nuclear crisis. They had an agreement that was acceptable to all parties and it looked like it was a done deal.

When I filed my story about the agreement from Beijing in 2005 I couldn’t have been happier. I was foolish enough to think that I had witnessed history in the making, to borrow the words of an official describing the event.

Although it’s a reporter’s job to read between the lines, dissect each government statement and question anything that seems too good to be true, the official was so convincing that I got sucked into the moment. And I wasn’t alone.

Many of us thought that Kim Jong-il had somehow seen the light and wanted to ride into the sunset with the peace of mind that he had secured a better future for his successor by deciding to abandon his nuclear weapons and programs.

Back then, we knew that working out the details of the agreement would be difficult, but many believed that a genuine change had occurred.

Since then, we have witnessed the explosion of a cooling tower, two nuclear tests, several missile launches, a South Korean tourist shot dead by a North Korean guard and the North’s taking of hostages, not to mention Iran trying to copy Pyongyang’s success in the nuclear realm.

During the following two decades of blackmail - because that’s what it is - entire professions have been built around this strange country that huffs and puffs when it can’t address its own shortcomings and needs an infusion of cash. We now have hordes of reporters and analysts making a living by speculating about what might be going on in the country that has been called a “black hole” by many of the world’s intelligence services.

Today, layer after layer of UN sanctions has been levied upon North Korea. Pyongyang seems to be ready to return to the six-party talks (again), with an expected visit by Kim Jong-il to China seemingly imminent as a way for the Chinese, the hosts of the six-party talks, to save face.

Meanwhile, it has been reported that the North’s failed currency reforms and a food shortage of up to 1 million metric tons have put the regime in a tight corner. Kim Jong-il once again needs a helping hand.

At this point, South Korea, the United States, Russia, Japan and China have played the game well past midnight, and they’re not finished yet. But they should keep in mind that their current policy of giving nothing to the North is what has brought them back to the table. For the first time, Pyongyang seems to need more than what Beijing is letting trickle into the North via Dandong. It’s the best hand the nations involved in the nuclear talks have ever been dealt - and they should not let the opportunity go to waste.

Unless something tangible is offered by the North, a return to negotiations will bear little fruit. Or if it does the most we might expect is another piece of paper, and we already have plenty of those.

Engaging the North is fine but negotiating is not. The latter has cost us too much and only exacerbated the problem.


By Brian Lee [africanu@joongang.co.kr]
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