[Viewpoint] Let’s get the five-party talks going

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[Viewpoint] Let’s get the five-party talks going

Well, glory be! “A major breakthrough” in relations between North and South Korea. Who could have imagined such a thing?

It was right there in the newspaper, so you know it must be true. A major breakthrough.

The story, credited to “wire services,” was only four paragraphs long, but managed to say both that the South had “agreed to a North Korean offer” and that “Pyongyang bowed to Seoul’s demand.” See how hard it is to keep track of Korean news when you live in the U.S.?

Anyway, there will be talks; that is the “major breakthrough.” We should be good for about six to eight months before breakthrough becomes breakdown, when North Korea storms out and announces that it will no longer negotiate and that it now regards “holy war” with the South as its world-historical mission.

This will be reported as “a serious setback” to hopes for reconciliation.

I and many others have scoffed at the idea that North Korea has been sending a signal that it wants better relations. No, it wants another payoff, and after it gets one, it will create another crisis leading to a demand for still another payoff.

This has been Kim Jong-il’s strategy at least since the 1994 Geneva Agreed Framework, through the North-South summit of 2000, until today.

From Kim’s point of view, it is a strategy that pays off. Why should he change it now? And why do earnest folk in Europe, the United States and Seoul think that this time may be different, that Kim may at long last be listening to the better angels of his nature?

Well, if we are to have negotiations, let’s make them of some use.

The talks announced last week are to be high-level military consultations between North and South. Sure to be discussed, or at least broached by Seoul, are last year’s deadly attacks: the sinking of a South Korean warship and the artillery shelling of a South Korean island.

For the time being, outsiders such as the U.S., China, Japan and Russia are not involved. The reason these talks are a “major breakthrough” is that bilateral military talks may provide a way to pretend that progress is being made so that the six nations can resume multilateral talks broken off by Pyongyang in 2009.

And then what? The ostensible purpose of the six-party talks since their inauguration in 2003 has been to offer aid and other inducements to the North to coax it to shelve its nuclear-weapons program. Kim will deign to accept the aid, and will then find a way to hang on to his nukes. Of course he will; the nukes are what permit him to make the rest of the world dance to his tune.

Let’s make an end-run around Mr. Kim. Reconvene the six-party talks, but expand the agenda and, if necessary, shrink the table.

China’s president Hu Jintao spent four days in the United States last week. The two countries signed a trade deal and agreed they had more to gain from cooperation than confrontation. Nobody called it a “major breakthrough” - those only happen between the Koreas.

Still, it was an episode in the kind of ongoing, painstaking, slogging diplomacy that the world relies on to manage tensions and promote stability. We need more of that in Northeast Asia.

What about convening “five-party” talks? Oh, by all means, invite the North Koreans and if they show up, pretend that a major breakthrough has occurred and that the six-party talks are viable again. And if North Korea wants to discuss aid-for-disarmament, make room on the agenda.

But if North Korea did not exist, the other five countries would have much to talk about. Europe has several discussion forums with overlapping membership: the EU for political and economic integration; NATO for military cooperation, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe for human rights, confidence-building and relaxation of tensions.

None of these institutions can translate directly to Northeast Asian realities. But the idea of an umbrella organization to manage relations among the five countries - China, Russia, Japan, South Korea and the United States - is worth pursuing.

To take only one example: how can the energy and mineral riches of Russian Siberia be developed? Does Russia have the capital to unlock its resources? Will the needs of China’s surging economy crowd out Japan and South Korea? Can transportation facilities be planned to integrate Eurasia “from Pusan to Paris,” as the slogan once promised?

But of course that black hole remains on the upper half of the peninsula. How can we link Busan with Paris when the rail line stops at Dorosan?

I still have my old T-shirt: “Dynamic Korea, the Hub of Northeast Asia.” I wear it in the gym; I wear it hiking. No one notices. The slogan fades on the shirt fabric as it does in the memory of a time when the North and South met for their first summit, a Nobel Prize was awarded and Korean unification was imaginable.

Even now, though, without unification, Seoul could be the hub of Northeast Asia.

Think about the hub of Europe: It’s Brussels. Why? Because Belgium is not France, Germany or Britain. Major European partners would not allow one of their number to become pre-eminent. Enter Brussels, a cosmopolitan city with a reputation for excellent cuisine.

And Seoul? Being a shrimp among whales is suddenly an advantage - Seoul is not Chinese, Japanese, Russian or American. Good food? Check. Central location in Northeast Asia? Check.

Let’s get the five-party talks going. And when Pyongyang realizes that the lucrative pipeline for Russian gas is going under the Yellow Sea instead of through North Korea, that the Busan-Paris rail line links directly with Vladivostok by barge, air freight, tunnel or causeway instead of through North Korea - well then, let’s see if Kim Jong-il and his heir might prefer to come in from the cold.

Now, that would be a major breakthrough.

*The writer is a former chief editor of the Korea JoongAng Daily.

By Harold Piper
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