This commentary appeared in South China Morning Post on September 3, 2003.
All in all, the talks on North Korea's nuclear programme that ended in Beijing
last week went as well as could be expected. There were no breakthroughs, but
neither did the talks end ruinously.
The challenge now for the countries involved will be ensuring that another
round of talks follows, especially given Pyongyang's latest announcement that
further talks would be "useless".
The format of the Beijing meeting—three days, six countries and dozens
of translators—made any significant substantive progress very unlikely.
If anything, given what Russia's deputy foreign minister called the "abyss of
distrust", between North Korea and the U.S., and their sharply articulated divergent
positions, the possibility that talks would simply break down loomed large.
Moreover, to put it mildly, negotiations with "the hermit kingdom" can always
veer into unexpected territory. Last October, North Korea made the unanticipated
admission of its uranium enrichment programme, triggering the current crisis.
In Beijing, to the surprise and consternation of all the countries involved,
North Korea's deputy foreign minister declared plans to test an atomic weapon.
Despite this jolt, there were some positive developments. U.S. officials lauded
the remarkable concurrence among "the five", as they call themselves—including
South Korea, Japan, China and Russia—as to the nature of the problem.
Moreover, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly and North Korea's representative,
Kim Yong-il, did have a short, informal bilateral meeting, thus confirming that
the structure of the talks could satisfy both the U.S.' call for a multilateral
approach and North Korea's insistence on bilateral meetings.
The multilateral format clearly showed North Korea the full extent of its isolation,
and officials reportedly did state that, in principle, they would be willing
to dismantle their nuclear weapons programme in exchange for a variety of concessions.
Finally, while the countries did not issue a formal joint declaration, as planned,
the five did reach a consensus on the need for future talks, likely to convene
within two months. Continuing negotiations are certainly the best of the bad
alternatives to resolving the North Korean nuclear crisis.
Some in the U.S. have advocated military action against plutonium reprocessing
and uranium enrichment sites, but the dangers to South Korea of a North Korean
retaliatory attack make such an option extraordinarily risky. In addition, the
North Korean targets of such a strike would be hard to find, because their nuclear
programmes are clandestine, and reliable intelligence is scarce.
Making sure the next round of negotiations takes place as planned will not
necessarily be a cakewalk. Provocative behaviour by North Korea and a potential
policy shift in the United States, or one followed by the other, could derail
the process. U.S. officials have announced their intention to "stay the course".
However, each round of talks that does not produce visible progress, and each
new threat from North Korea, strengthens the arguments of those Americans who
assert that negotiating with North Korea is pointless and that the U.S. should
instead opt for a policy of regime change that would begin with an economic
squeeze, even a blockade. This group may argue for increased and more robust
programmes of interdictions and military exercises leading up to the next set
For its part, North Korea could also scuttle the diplomatic track by refusing
to meet again or, worse, by testing a nuclear weapon, as it claimed it would
in Beijing. Many analysts doubt the North could actually conduct such a test.
The North is probably hoping that the threat of testing will create another
bargaining chip its negotiators can work with.
While a nuclear test would not change much factually—the CIA already
estimates that North Korea has one or two nuclear weapons—it would dramatically
change the politics of North Korea policy in the U.S., and would likely end
any hope of a co-operative solution.
North Koreans may assume that until the next presidential election, and given
the state of affairs in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. is unlikely to venture
into another military action. But history tells us that it is dangerous to make
predictions based on American politics. Even if their calculation is correct,
an economic chokehold agreed to by all its trading partners would put severe
pressure on North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.
Last week's talks were a limited success, but the real test of whether diplomacy
can resolve this crisis will play out over the coming months. Two months can
be a long time.
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