[Viewpoint] Denuclearization the goal, not talksBracing for the upcoming presidential election, the Obama administration changed tack on the North Korean nuclear issue, moving from a position of strategic patience to engagement. The goal appears to be avoiding political criticism from the opposition that the administration made few efforts to engage in dialogue with the North if it takes military action, such as firing missiles, conducting a third nuclear test, or pursuing armed provocations like the sinking of our warship Cheonan and the North’s bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island.
Inter-Korean talks on denuclearization were held in Bali, Indonesia, on July 22, and exploratory contact between the North and the United States to verify its will to implement denuclearization was held in New York last week. It seems that the North will ultimately be freed from its 31-month-long UN sanctions and diplomatic isolation. But few believe the North will abandon its nuclear development program in earnest.
It goes without saying that the North Korean nuclear issue should be solved through dialogue. But efforts to do so have failed for the last 18 years. Since the North declared its withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1993, this is the fourth time that talks on the North’s nuclear disarmament have resumed. It is also the third round of talks since the launch of the six-party talks in 2003. The North has sabotaged the talks repeatedly by testing nuclear bombs, firing missiles and extracting nuclear material from used fuel-rods.
The Agreed Framework between the U.S. and North Korea - adopted in Geneva in 1994 - was nullified after the North admitted it clandestinely engaged in a uranium enrichment program and extracted nuclear material from used fuel-rods. The joint statement adopted at the fourth round of six-party talks on Sept. 19, 2005 became invalid after the North fired Taepodong missiles and carried out a nuclear test. A series of agreements to disable the North’s nuclear facilities and implement verification - all adopted at talks from 2007 to 2008 - were invalidated after the North fired long-range missiles, reinstated nuclear experiments, resumed its processing of used fuel rods and carried out its second nuclear test in May 2009.
The dialogue this time was initiated by the U.S. and China, but each has a different rationale for doing so. While the U.S. needs dialogue for domestic political consumption, China has been promoting the six-party talks with a strategic goal in mind: Stability on the Korean Peninsula.
Americans who advocate engagement of the North claim the Obama administration should pursue dialogue without reserve, as there is no other realistic diplomatic solution. In the long run, however, leaving the North under UN sanctions is an indisputably more effective solution to the problem than pursuing dialogue that will only put Washington in a situation where it is exploited by Pyongyang’s brinkmanship tactics.
Elections often interfere with a democratic government by preventing it from seeking a rational foreign policy. It is understandable that the Obama administration had to change its stance on the North. But what matters is how the U.S. deals with the reclusive state. In the U.S.-North talks in New York last week, a large gap between the two sides was revealed on the issue of the latter’s uranium enrichment program. While the U.S. claimed the UEP was in clear violation of the Sept. 19, 2005 joint statement and UN Security Council resolutions that imposed sanctions, Pyongyang insisted it had the right to use nuclear energy for peaceful means and that the UEP falls under that category. It proposed resuming the six-party talks and discussing the UEP issue there.
However denuclearization should be the goal, not the talks. Obama must establish a clear principle for engagement with the North. He must assert that conditions for the resumption of the six-party talks - which were presented in New York - should be met. Before resuming talks, the North must end all of its nuclear development activities, and reinstate IAEA inspections, proclaim it will fully implement the joint statement adopted on Sept. 19, 2005, and stop testing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
If the U.S. agrees to the talks without confirming the North’s will for denuclearization, Washington will be pulled into the typical brinkmanship tactics of the recalcitrant regime. Washington must wait for Pyongyang show its genuine willingness to denuclearize.
*The writer is a visiting professor of communication at Sejong University.
By Park Sung-soo