Picking up the pieces in East Asia“A turning point in the half-century conflict on the Korean Peninsula,” ran a headline on the front page of the JoongAng Ilbo on Sept. 20, 2005, the morning after North Korea agreed to end its nuclear weapons program at six-party talks held in Beijing. The paper devoted five pages to a report on the significance of the joint statement issued one day earlier, in which the North promised to “abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs, and return at an early date to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons [in line with] International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards.”
The news received a lot of attention from other newspapers and broadcasters both at home and abroad. They cited South Korean government officials forecasting that a tipping point had been reached ahead of a new order taking shape on the peninsula.
Seven years have passed since then and it seems that much of the so-called feats were made in vain, with a lot of hoopla about nothing. Earlier this year, the North wrote in its constitution that it is a nuclear state, clearly stressing that it has no intention of yielding or ceasing its nuclear weapons program. So far this year, it has kept a low profile on the issue. It briefly raised a storm by defying international warnings and launching a satellite rocket in April, a move widely viewed as a test of its intercontinental ballistic missile capability for nuclear payloads. But, much to the regime’s chagrin, the rocket broke apart moments after the launch and scattered into the sea.
The joint statement issued in September 2005 - the first breakthrough since the six-party negotiations began under the sponsorship of China in 2003 - created much drama but few tangible results. U.S. chief negotiator Christopher Hill, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs, was clearly skeptical about whether the negotiations would prove productive, and told reporters earlier in the morning that he expected to be done with the meeting before noon. He had already booked a ticket home for that afternoon. But a major breakthrough arrived at the last minute as the diplomatic process was on the verge of collapsing.
The draft accord accepted by all six parties - the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia - commits the North to discard all of its nuclear weapons and production facilities. In return, Washington declared that it has no intention to attack or invade the country and also promised that it would respect the North’s sovereignty and right to a peaceful existence. They also agreed to work toward normalizing relations and lasting peace on the peninsula. In principle, the agreement was enough to trumpet fundamental changes in the region.
But hopes were dashed the following day. The North’s foreign ministry said it would not stand by its promise to dismantle its nuclear program unless the U.S. delivered a light-water nuclear reactor first. Washington lashed out by calling this a breach of the accord. Moreover, the original draft left room for dispute as, while North Korea agreed to return to the non-proliferation treaty and IAEA safeguards “at an early date,” the other five signatories agreed to start negotiations at “an appropriate time,” to allow the North time to build civilian light-water reactors.
Washington and Pyongyang later banged heads over the latter’s suspicious financial deals through Macau-based Banco Delta Asia bank. In 2005, Washington designated the bank as a money-laundering concern through which the North engaged in illicit financial activities, and barred U.S. banks from doing business with it. One year later, the North test-fired its Taepodong-2 intercontinental ballistic missile and later carried out its first nuclear test.
The 2005 agreement was shoved aside as a useless document. The sixth and last round of six-party talks took place in 2007 without yielding any productive outcome. Since then, the North has attempted a second nuclear test (in 2009) and embarked on a uranium enrichment program to provoke Washington.
After the death of Kim Jong-il last December, North Korea’s supreme leader for 17 years, his son Kim Jong-un took over the reins. Meanwhile, before this year is up, a new leader and government will have been installed in South Korea, the U.S. and China. The North’s nuclear issue is likely to be kept off the radar as much as possible until next year, after the new administrations settle in.
Now territorial disputes are gripping East Asia in its place. China is locking horns with Southeast Asian nations over territorial claims in the South China Sea, while an even fiercer head-on clash with Japan is taking place over the Diaoyu, or Senkaku, Islands. South Korea and Japan are also engaged in a diplomatic spat over sovereignty in the uninhabited Dokdo islets, called Takeshima in Japan. This reflects China’s desire to take over traditional U.S. influence in the region and the sprouting-up of nationalism in Japan amid its prolonged economic slump.
The major players in the six-party framework are not on terms as friendly as they were seven years ago, so if the North attempts more provocation, a joint front may not be as easy to form. But crisis can also be an opportunity. In today’s world, no state can easily resort to extreme military means to solve disputes. Countries are more interlinked than ever before.
The 2005 accord lacked details on how to achieve lasting peace, but this is an issue the incoming Korean president should take the initiative in clearing up. It will require extraordinary willpower, planning, and flexibility. But that is a worthwhile challenge for any state leader.
* The author is an editorial writer for the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kang Young-jin