[Viewpoint] How to handle distrust

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[Viewpoint] How to handle distrust

Diplomatic efforts to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear weapons program involving the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia are finally making headway after a three-year stalemate. Beijing and Washington are busy trying to set the table with six place settings and get North Korea to accept the invitation. Pyongyang is acting tempted.

But Seoul stands uncertain at the threshold of the room. The roles of the two main participants - with North Korean usually playing the party pooper - have been reversed. The six-party equation has become more complicated than before, with the U.S., China and North Korea on the eager side and South Korea unwilling to send in its RSVP.

In the past, the six-party process was pretty clear-cut, with five nations against maverick North Korea. Now we can see the other five nations trying to woo South Korea to the table. If Seoul’s stubbornness goes on too long, it may exasperate the other parties and end up undermining the South’s position once the talks reopen.

The latest endeavors to revive the talks have been too urgent to be regarded as a passing phenomenon.

During her meeting with President Lee Myung-bak in Seoul last month, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton politely suggested the six-party representatives from the North and South meet to gauge Pyongyang’s sincerity about denuclearization negotiations, while adding that South Korea sits in the driver’s seat on six-party affairs.

Washington has also been implying that it is considering resuming humanitarian food aid to North Korea. It has been sending signals that the Obama administration may be losing “strategic patience” on North Korean affairs.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s visit to Pyongyang last week and a visit to Seoul by China’s chief envoy to the six-party talks, Wu Dawei, cannot be coincidental. Carter indicated that Pyongyang is ready to return to the talks without any conditions attached.

Wu visited Washington and Seoul with the idea of edging incrementally toward negotiations through preliminary bilateral talks between the two Koreas and Washington.

Seoul, however, remains undecided. President Lee is said to have emphasized the need to confirm some kind of “sincerity” by North Korea toward the talks in his meeting with Clinton. He also reiterated that humanitarian aid to North Korea cannot resume without the North’s apology for last year’s deadly attacks on the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island.

President Lee’s hard-line stance can hardly be blamed, considering North Korea’s track record in past negotiations and the severity of last year’s attacks. Any nation can walk away from an agreement when the terms no longer correspond with national interests.

Such a move may undermine the credibility of the country, yet is politically acceptable. But signing an agreement without the intention of complying with its terms is an act of outright deception and betrayal. North Korea ridiculed the six-party agreements reached on Sept. 19, 2005, and Feb. 13, 2007, by continuing with tests of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.

Its attitude hasn’t changed, if the message relayed through Carter is any indication. The South Korean government cannot easily forgive and make up with North Korea under current circumstances.

But Seoul cannot continue to play solo when all other players are renewing efforts to jointly end Pyongyang’s weapons program. South Korea may be cornered if the other five nations band together to push for talks. Pyongyang may capture the wheel if we stubbornly disagree to get on board.

We can’t agree to sit across from North Korea without knowledge of its real intentions. But we can’t know its intentions without meeting with North Korea first. All monumental negotiations in world history have taken place against a backdrop of severe distrust.

The two superpowers of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union, almost came close to nuclear war at the height of their confrontation.

When the two countries met for the second strategic arms limitations talks in 1979, Soviet Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin famously opened the discussion by bluntly telling the American delegates, “Let’s agree that we do not trust you, and you do not trust us. And we both have good reason.”

The Cold War came to an end. North Korea’s nuclear problem is too grave to keep it on ice for so long.

*The writer is a professor of political science at Seoul National University.

By Chang Dal-joong
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