Possibilities in New York

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Possibilities in New York

A grand diplomatic stage will be on display in New York on Sept. 23. At the initiative of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, state leaders of 193 member countries will join the UN Climate Summit, including President Park Geun-hye and U.S. President Barack Obama. The leaders are expected to have a heated discussion on how to regulate greenhouse gas emissions after the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2020.

Diplomatic exchanges taking place on the sidelines of the summit are also expected to be important. Most leaders are expected to have delegations of around 30 including the country’s foreign minister. Thousands of officials will work inside and outside UN headquarters for their countries.

It will be a storm of diplomacy. Bilateral meetings will take place between countries on their pending issues. During last year’s UN General Assembly period, Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se attended 20 meetings. In 2011, Obama had 13 bilateral summits. The 193 member countries of the UN will hold summits or ministerial meetings every 30 to 60 minutes and at least 1,000 meetings normally take place during the UN General Assembly.

For this, the United Nations creates dozens of makeshift conference rooms. Although they are called conference rooms, they are really nothing more than small partitioned spaces with a table and a few chairs. World leaders and foreign ministers will have meetings in these simple settings. Because diplomatic formalities are waived for these working meetings, schedules are often decided only a few days - or sometimes a few hours - in advance.

They are called “pull-aside meetings” because it feels like you are plucking away a partner as he passes you by. This is, in fact, a grand diplomatic bazaar.

This year’s UN General Assembly is gaining even more attention because North Korea will dispatch its foreign minister to the session for the first time in 15 years. If Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong of the North arrives in the United States, the New York channel between Pyongyang and Washington will likely be put back in action.

The New York channel refers to contacts between North Korean representatives to the United Nations in New York and senior U.S. officials dealing with North Korea. The channel was first created in 1973 when the North opened its mission in the United Nations. At the time, the North was a mere observer, but it opened a temporary office at the luxurious Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. The North was probably better off at the time. In comparison, China opened its office at the less lavish Roosevelt Hotel. The North Korean mission started a fierce diplomatic battle against South Korea in the arena of the United Nations from then on.

The North Korean mission’s role, on the surface, was diplomacy in the United Nations, but it had a much more important hidden task: contact with the U.S. government. The deputy ambassador communicated with U.S. officials in charge of Korea affairs and coordinated their views.

It is noteworthy that the North’s foreign minister is visiting New York. After his arrival, he will likely contact U.S. officials and deliver the North’s views and maybe some of its demands. New York is also home to other important foreign affairs institutions including the Korea Society and National Committee on American Foreign Policy.

The North Korean official can also meet secretly with North Korea policy officials from the White House or the State Department. That’s precisely what North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan did during his visit to New York in 2007 after the North conducted its first nuclear test.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his top foreign affairs officials will also visit New York. There is a high possibility that Chinese President Xi Jinping will meet with Abe at the APEC summit in Beijing in November.

The UN General Assembly is an incredible opportunity for Seoul to resolve deadlocked relations with Pyongyang and Tokyo. And yet Korean foreign affairs officials show no signs of using this opportunity. Seoul announced it has no plan for a meeting between the two Koreas’ foreign ministers. They don’t seem to have even thought about Seoul-Tokyo ministerial contact.

Last year, U.S. State Secretary John Kerry achieved a breakthrough by meeting with Iran’s foreign minister for the first time in 30 years. That meeting took place on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.

Former U.S. State Secretary Madeleine Albright has said peace is something you achieve between foes. Exchanging pleasantries with friends is not diplomacy. Talking with a difficult partner to achieve something is true diplomacy.

In 2007, presidential candidate Obama promoted the idea that the United States must talk to Iran and North Korea. Concerns are high that Park Geun-hye will waste this diplomatic opportunity by obsessing with principles.

JoongAng Ilbo, Sept. 5, Page 28

The author is a senior writer on international affairs at JoongAng Ilbo.

by Nam Jeong-ho

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