[Viewpoint] South Korea’s nuclear challenge

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[Viewpoint] South Korea’s nuclear challenge

I wrote in the Joongang Ilbo several years ago that South Korea was perfectly positioned to play a leading role in creating an open and inclusive East Asia community, if the government could broaden its vision beyond the pressing challenges on the Korean Peninsula.

The logic is straightforward. South Korea is in a pivotal position on all of the region’s major issues. South Korea sits between continental China and maritime Japan and, with deft diplomacy, can help determine whether these two ancient rivals increase their competition or move toward mutual trust and cooperation. South Korea is also at the crossroads between democratic and authoritarian Asia and serves as a leading example of how others can successfully democratize and embrace universal values while retaining a strong, Asian heritage.

Finally, South Korea lives on the front lines of global proliferation challenges and could therefore have lasting impact as it demonstrates a strategic stance toward North Korea’s dangerous nuclear weapons programs and responsible stewardship of the South’s own peaceful nuclear technology. It is this pivotal position that led the Obama administration to ask South Korea to host the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit.

In the year ahead, the multilateral diplomatic calendar in Asia will intensify, and South Korea’s leadership will be tested. First, there is the possibility of resuming six-party talks. The Chinese three-step formula is for resumption of talks to begin with a U.S.-DPRK bilateral, followed by a meeting of the six heads of delegation, and then finally the full plenary.

The United States, Japan and South Korea seem to have moved the Chinese off that formula since Cheonan and Yeonpyeong. Now the three-phased resumption would have to be North-South, U.S.-DPRK, and then full six-party talks. Will Pyongyang be able to satisfy the requirements for the first phase of a North-South understanding on the way forward?

It will be difficult, but it is not out of the question. If the talks do resume, it is unlikely that the North will agree to irreversible and verifiable denuclearization - and without that the U.S. and others will be hesitant to make any concessions. If the talks do not resume - and perhaps even if they do - it makes sense to proceed with other discussions that focus on managing the North’s provocative nuclear ambitions.

These other forums already include stronger U.S.-Japan-ROK trilateral coordination, and efforts should continue to convince a reluctant China to agree to five-party talks as well (ROK, U.S., Japan, Russia, China). In either case, the six-party talks seem unlikely to become a central part of Asia’s multilateral diplomatic architecture in light of Pyongyang’s reluctance to end its nuclear ambitions.

Meanwhile, there will be other multilateral meetings that could be used to advance denuclearization and broader confidence-building and stability in Asia. In June, the defense ministers of the region will gather at the annual Shangri-La meeting in Singapore hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

There will likely be a U.S.-Japan-ROK defense trilateral, but perhaps the meeting could also be used to spotlight the North’s nuclear programs in order to convince the representative from China’s People’s Liberation Army (usually a three-star general but not the defense minister) of the importance of pressing Pyongyang harder for denuclearization.

Then in July, the region’s foreign ministers will gather at the annual Asean Regional Forum in Indonesia. North Korea is a participant in the forum, and it will therefore be difficult to reach a consensus on a joint statement about the North’s provocative behavior and nuclear programs.

Still, pressing for a statement will force Pyongyang to stand up to virtually all the nations of Asia and explain what it is doing. Moreover, the gathering could be used as place to push for a five-party forum to send a strong signal of deterrence and nontolerance of nuclear weapons to the North.

In November President Lee Myung-bak, President Obama and many other Asian leaders will gather in Hawaii for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum and then in Bali for the East Asia Summit, which the United States will join for the first time. China has been hesitant to discuss security issues at APEC because Taiwan is a participant, but APEC foreign ministers did put out strong statements in opposition to North Korea’s nuclear program in 2002 and since. Because the United States is host, there may be an opportunity to do so again. Where APEC focuses largely on trade, the East Asia Summit has a more open and comprehensive agenda.

Still, Beijing and others in Asean will resist discussing security issues, and the United States may have to play a more subtle role in shaping the agenda since the country is new to the summit. South Korea could therefore play a strong leadership role in proposing discussion among the leaders on North Korea’s nuclear program. The goal should be to build a crescendo of regional and international pressure on North Korea leading up to next year’s nuclear summit in South Korea.

Up to this point, South Korea has explored many avenues to shape regional architecture as a dynamic “middle power,” including ideas several years back for a “KIA” (Korea-Indonesia-Australia) middle-power caucus and the establishment more recently of a “Plus Three” (Korea, Japan, China) trilateral secretariat in Seoul.

These are important efforts to shape the regional architecture, but South Korea’s greatest stage will be the larger multilateral meetings such as the EAS, APEC, and the nuclear summit as well as the G-20. With the six-party talks stalling, these broader multilateral forums offer new chances for nuclear diplomacy as well.

*The writer is a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

By Michael Green
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