[Viewpoint] No breakthrough on the horizon

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[Viewpoint] No breakthrough on the horizon

North Korean delegates to a recent international security forum in New York assured that they no longer want to fight with the United States and are willing to dismantle nuclear weapons if Washington establishes ties with the regime.

Relations among South Korea, North Korea and the U.S. won’t improve unless America drops its prejudice and changes its perspective of the North, the delegates said.

They also affirmed that their new leader Kim Jong-un hopes for a thaw in U.S.-North relations, but cannot do so as long as they identify North Korea as a rogue, despotic and criminal state. The U.S. has severed diplomatic ties with Bhutan, Iran, Cuba and North Korea.

Bhutan refuses to set up diplomatic relations with the U.S., while Iran and Cuba cut off ties with the world’s largest economy. But the U.S. has never recognized - and remains hostile to - North Korea even though it established ties with Germany and Japan, the delegates fumed.

The outburst from North Koreans at an informal Northeast Asia Peace and Security Conference co-hosted by Syracuse University’s Maxwell School and Germany’s Friedrich Ebert Foundation last week were shockingly blunt. They demanded a different relationship with the U.S. by ending sanctions and moving toward the normalization of diplomatic ties.

In short, they want Washington to veer away from the long-standing position of demanding denuclearization for normalizing ties. Pyongyang will be reciprocal if Washington makes concessions first. Although the talks were informal, the North Korean delegates were relaying the message from their new leader.

Their comments, however, received a cool response from U.S. representatives. In a democracy like the U.S., the government cannot mold politicians’ perspectives on North Korea. With virtually no support for the reclusive Pyongyang regime, Washington is hardly likely to change its mind about North Korea overnight. Few would want to take sides with a recalcitrant regime that conducted two nuclear tests and test-fired long-range missiles even after signing a denuclearization agreement.

Without North Korea making a decisive move on disarmament, the U.S. government cannot persuade Congress to agree to and approve the normalization of ties or the signing of a peace treaty. U.S. officials reiterated that North Korea should first rejoin the Nonproliferation Treaty and demonstrate a specific and unquestionable commitment to denuclearization.

The North Koreans meticulously kept their distance from the South Koreans during the forum in New York. When I asked what they can gain by excluding South Korea and trying to mend ties with the U.S. alone, the North Korean delegates made clear that better Pyongyang-Washington relations are their top priority and that improved ties with South Korea and Japan will naturally follow.

They also argued that they wanted to mend ties with South Korea, but said it was the South Koreans who made this unattainable.

If Seoul lifts sanctions and suspension of all inter-Korean agreements on economic cooperation and aid, Pyongyang will also be willing to open up. On a personal note, they blamed the conservative Lee Myung-bak administration for the deadlock in inter-Korean relations. North Koreans reinforced defense because “South Koreans launched large-scale military drills with American forces,” but they are offended by being accused of shifting to a provocative posture, they said.

They also emphasized that North Koreans cannot tolerate any defamatory action and comments against their beloved father-son leaders. They have turned cold against South Korea because the Seoul government has been two-faced - offering dialogue at one point and undermining the regime at the other. They cannot face South Koreans against such a backdrop, they argued.

It is a positive sign that Pyongyang has turned to more aggressive diplomatic maneuvering under its new leader.

But we aren’t likely to see a major breakthrough in North Korea-U.S. ties or relations on the Korean Peninsula any time soon as long as Washington and Seoul uphold their position that the two Koreas must improve relations before any progress in Pyongyang-Washington and broader six-party talks.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

*The author is a political science professor at Yonsei University.

by Moon Chung-in
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