[Viewpoint] On the horns of a dilemma

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[Viewpoint] On the horns of a dilemma

On Feb. 29, North Korea agreed to suspend missile tests and uranium enrichment in exchange for U.S. nutritional aid. The agreement in Beijing naturally led to the question: Did Pyongyang express an intention to resume inter-Korean dialogue at the last negotiation in Beijing?

Initially, the negotiation between Pyongyang and Washington was part of a bigger road map that was to begin with inter-Korean talks followed by Pyongyang-Washington talks to lead to a resumption of the six-party process. That scenario was okayed by Seoul and Washington and endorsed by Beijing.

The North-U.S. talks were initiated immediately after the foreign ministers of South and North Korea met in Bali, Indonesia, in July 2011 for the Asean Regional Forum. Critics called the strategic tying of food aid and denuclearization a tactic that ultimately encourages North Korea’s motivation for nuclear development, but U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration chose it, as there was no alternative to suspending the uranium and missile activities at this point.

What did U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy Glyn Davies hear from North Korean envoy and First Vice Minister of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Kim Kye-gwan? The answer to this question is not very inspiring for the Koreas. Washington’s position is that the six-party talks cannot resume without improvement in inter-Korean relations.

However, the United States did not set such an improvement as a prerequisite for the resumption of the six-party talks, but has accepted it as part of the “homework” that needs to be done sooner or later. In an effort to facilitate a better inter-Korean relationship, the United States invited a representative from Seoul to the conference on Peace and Cooperation in Northeast Asia in New York attended by the North Korean deputy foreign minister with Pyongyang’s consent. However, North Korea did not mention the possibility of resuming inter-Korean dialogue.

What does this mean? Even though talks between Pyongyang and Washington are active, a resumption of inter-Korean dialogue is still remote, and the prospect for a six-party meeting is not very bright. North Korea attached a string - that it would halt uranium enrichment and missile activities “while fruitful meetings are in progress.”

Pyongyang basically took the prerogative to delay or refuse compliance with the Beijing agreements if any problem arises in the course of providing and distributing the agreed 240,000 metric tons of nutritional aid, or in its requests for corn as well as additional U.S. assistance.

Washington considers the inclusion of the suspension of the North’s uranium enrichment program in the Beijing agreement a major success, and the Obama administration doesn’t want Pyongyang meddling with its re-election campaign by way of a nuclear experiment or a long-range missile launch.

North Korea is also effectively using Washington’s position as leverage. This way, Pyongyang can cover up its desperate need for U.S. aid in order to celebrate the centennial birthday of Kim Il Sung on April 15, and to solidify the Kim Jong-un regime and become a supposedly “strong and prosperous” nation. By slyly mentioning the possibility of a resumption of the six-party talks, Pyongyang must have calculated that it could expect additional bonuses from China.

The Beijing agreement is certainly groundbreaking, as it concluded the two negotiations conducted under Kim Jong-il’s leadership and also confirms Kim Jong-un’s intention to maintain the direction of the North-U.S. talks initiated by his father. It is the bright side of necrocracy: Kim Jong-un follows Kim Jong-il’s legacy.

The Korean government has issued a statement welcoming the Beijing agreement. But Washington knows it was a reluctant one. In 1994, North Korea and the United States signed the Geneva Agreed Framework to freeze the North’s nuclear program in return for two light water reactors as well as oil. Korea was excluded from the negotiation but had to pay 70 percent of the light water reactor power plants’ construction cost, which came to a total of $1.6 billion.

The Beijing agreement brings back the nightmare of 1994. Seoul’s concern is justifiable, but this time we are faced with an obstacle called the six-party meetings. In order for the agreement between Pyongyang and Washington to reach the ultimate goal of the resolution of a nuclear threat, we must have a consensus in the six-party talks.

But the framework of six-party talks is not a sufficient condition for saving Korea from the dilemma. Without negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington, there will be no progress in the nuclear issue. But if Pyongyang and Washington go too far and Seoul is left out, the South’s solid stance of not tolerating North Korea’s nuclear development may not be reflected properly. Yet, there are limited ways for Seoul to react. North Korea has no rushed intentions and wants to deal with the South’s next administration rather than with the hard-line Lee Myung-bak government.

As a final attempt, the Lee administration may want to consider resuming family reunions between the two Koreas as well as sending a high-ranking special envoy with the cooperation of Washington and Beijing. It could suggest providing a certain amount of rice to each person meeting his or her lost family members in the reunions.

The government has already been considering such a deal. The envoy could also bring incentives such as lifting the May 24 sanctions on the North, having a flexible stance on the issue of an apology for the Cheonan sinking and resuming full-fledged assistance.

But that will only work if the ruling party puts up a good fight in the upcoming general election. If the opposition has a landslide victory and Pyongyang thinks a power change will take place in November, such proposals won’t work either.

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

by Kim Young-hie
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