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Monday, Feb. 23, 2004

NORTH KOREA TALKS

U.S. harsh line won't help


The official U.S. negotiating position for the upcoming North Korean peace talks in Beijing was recently laid out by the top U.S. negotiator, a respected man of peace. But details of the position may actually be a prescription for war. This is alarming.

At a little-noticed conference earlier this month in Washington, James Kelly, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, outlined the American position in detail. In effect, it requires North Korea to seek "redemption" (yes, that was the word used) and capitulate to the Bush administration's demand to dismantle its nuclear program without conditions.

On one level, this is a lovely idea. North Korea is obviously no prize, its communist ruling elite is practically a textbook case on bad government. Worse yet -- morally and politically for the region -- has been its clandestine and aggressive sales on the international black market of arms and technology so as to satiate the appetites and selfish needs of the politico-military elite even as the average North Korean suffers.

But Kelly's "Judgment at Nuremberg" indictment of Pyongyang would make for a better opening scene in a Hollywood movie than the first step in a serious negotiation. For all its faults, North Korea is a sovereign state, and perhaps one with a few atomic weapons. The word "redemption" is better left to the "altar boys" in U.S. President George W. Bush's re-election campaign than to his negotiators in Beijing, to which Kelly is headed this week for the resumption of the six-party talks on North Korea.

The four other parties -- China, Japan, Russia and South Korea -- have even more of a direct stake in normalizing relations with North Korea and denuclearizing it than the United States: They live in the neighborhood. That's why at times they fear the hardline U.S. stance as much as the North Korean one. Wars, as the Bush neoconservatives are perhaps beginning to understand, can be messy things. U.S. hawks owe it to the world to accept that Iraq is more than enough war for now.

The Japanese are growing apprehensive. Two Tokyo diplomats recently returned from a brief bilateral chat in Pyongyang downcast and depressed, almost sorry they had made the effort. Their mission was to sound out the North Koreans about isolating the incendiary "abductee" issue from the Beijing talks to reduce the potential for diplomatic and domestic volatility. The Japanese public will not allow the Koizumi government to be party to any Korean Peninsula treaty that leaves wholly unresolved the fate of Japanese citizens kidnapped over the years by North Korean secret agents. However, the North Korean view, to put it bluntly, is that the Japanese, with their long and brutal occupation of the Korean Peninsula last century, can basically go to hell.

Reaction in Japan when the pair of diplomats returned empty-handed was bitter. "They simply could not achieve any tangible progress," explained an official in the Foreign Ministry. "It was a very, very tiring negotiation and a very uncomfortable one."

Upon their return, they briefed counterparts in China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Notwithstanding their extensive history of vile relations, the two nations have been working well together on the North Korean problem, which neither wants to see degenerate. In fact, Tokyo has developed a growing respect for the professionalism of Beijing's diplomacy on this vital issue.

"The Chinese have been working very hard to help improve relations between Japan and North Korea," the Japanese foreign-affairs official was happy to report.

The South Koreans and the Russians are also asking Pyongyang to be more accommodating on the abductee issue; they would also like to see it severed from the talks, fearing its potential to poison them. So far, it looks as if North Korea is willing to resolve the issue through nongovernmental channels, such as an international humanitarian organization or international business group. This may not be a bad idea.

Kelly, in his exceedingly professional but often dour policy presentation at the conference, sponsored in part by the American Enterprise Institute and the Korea Economic Institute, made one especially telling point: "The six-party format helps to deny North Korea the opportunity to play its neighbors off, one against the other."

True enough. And this format might also lock the Bush administration into a less dogmatic approach as well.

That would be good, too. It is one thing to lock horns with Pyongyang. Still, American diplomacy will suffer a tremendous loss in prestige and credibility if Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo walk away from the talks shaking their heads over North Korea's intransigence as well as America's.

UCLA Professor Tom Plate is a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy.


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