[Viewpoint] The six-party conundrum

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[Viewpoint] The six-party conundrum

Regardless of what former U.S. President Jimmy Carter heard on his trip to Pyongyang, the international stage is set for a return to the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear disarmament, which were suspended after Pyongyang walked away from them in December 2008.

But before the six nations sit down, there has to be bilateral talks between the two Koreas and a subsequent meeting between North Korea and the United States. Seoul set those preconditions to new six-party talks and received support from the United States and Russia last June. Beijing halfheartedly agreed after asking if North Korea would accept those terms. Seoul’s face-saving demand was made after the North’s deadly attacks on one of our naval ships and one of our islands. If even that falls through, we can’t expect any progress in efforts to denuclearize the North during the current administration.

It would be meaningful for the two sides to sit down to discuss North Korea’s nuclear weapons, considering the communist regime’s stubborn insistence that the nuclear program is an issue between Pyongyang and Washington alone. Seoul, too, might have to make concessions.

The South Korean government, which has maintained that it cannot agree to any form of dialogue with North Korea without receiving a formal apology for the attacks on the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island, is expected to ease its position and discuss last year’s military provocations during bilateral talks, not necessarily before. And an inter-Korean summit could also be on the talks’ agenda.

The government is still split between doves and hawks and is yet to decide on its final position, but the idea of accepting the idea of bilateral talks on denuclearization, during which we can try to persuade North Korea to apologize and promise peace, is likely to gain the upper hand. Inter-Korean talks to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is too important a possibility to be stalled by an interminable internal debate on the issue of a North Korean apology. The conservative and liberal sides should set aside ideological differences to seriously contemplate a path to denuclearization and co-prosperity, and think of this as our last chance to make progress in those areas.

Before we sit down for talks, we should get our priorities straight. Bilateral talks on denuclearization should try to fix the flaws of the joint agreements of Sept. 19, 2005, and Feb. 13, 2007. The 2005 joint communique set the goal of six-party negotiations as the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula instead of the denuclearization of North Korea. The vague wording gave Pyongyang an excuse to temporize on actions to end its weapons development and more or less allowed it to betray the 2005 agreement by testing a nuclear device in 2006. It also abused the provision guaranteeing peaceful use of nuclear power to continue with its weapons development. The Sept. 29 joint agreement only ended up benefiting North Korea while constraining South Korea.

The 2007 agreement to set up working-level talks was no less fair. The working group on denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula ended up turning the negotiation into a discussion of reducing the arms of both Koreas. The subgroups to improve North Korea’s relations with the United States and Japan and on economic and energy cooperation merely discussed quid pro quos with North Korea. The working-level group to enhance regional peace and security became a forum to debate ways to ensure the security of the Pyongyang regime.

Despite the terms in its favor, North Korea betrayed its international agreements, went on testing atomic bombs and missiles, and carried out military attacks against South Koreans and our territory. Pyongyang is expected to return to bilateral talks with South Korea and the United States, as well as the six-party negotiations, with even higher stakes. The government anticipates North Korea will attempt to shift the focus from denuclearization to a peace treaty. If the multinational talks go along with North Korean demand for peace in return for denuclearization, we may never get to the end of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

Talks with North Korea on its nuclear program should not be carried out when the regime secretly pursues weapons. A moratorium on nuclear arms and missiles development should be enforced. The international society, through the United Nations Security Council, should voice its concern and address the country’s uranium enrichment program. Such a resolution can only carry weight if Beijing joins the chorus condemning the uranium program.

Time and patience will be needed for six-party negotiations to follow preliminary bilateral talks. We need a more aggressive and creative mind-set. We should stop limiting ourselves by presuming North Korean will never forsake nuclear weapons. Not doing all we can would be shying away from our obligation to our future generations.

*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Kim Young-hie
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