North Korea may be a distant enemy to the United States, but to South
Korea it is the closest and most threatening reality in the global
community. The communist regime in the North is the gravest threat
facing the democratic South as North Korea's reckless and provocative
behavior continues, especially its recent second nuclear test and
firing of short-range missiles.
It thus no surprise that some
Korean analysts are claiming that the six-party talks cannot function
normally any longer in dealing with an erratic North. Some who
previously praised the dialogue as meaningful step in terms of regional
security and the establishment of a peace regime, not to mention the
denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, are giving up.
inconvenient truth for those still in favor of the six-party talks is
that the five countries on one side of the table South Korea, the US,
China, Japan and Russia ‑ have been unable to lead the unwieldy North
to abandon its nuclear weapons programs.
As North Korea has made
continually clumsy attempts to legitimate its nuclear weapons program,
however, many conservative political pundits and experts here in Seoul
have begun to consider North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and his regime
They're right. The Stalinist country's hostile
attitudes were enough to show that the stalled nuclear disarmament
negotiations had more holes than Swiss cheese and that the conventional
wisdom that diplomacy is preferable to sanctions was wrong.
six-party process didn't work despite the five nations' efforts to stop
the North's never-ending ambitions to go nuclear. Moreover, Pyongyang
also finds the multilateral talks unnecessary because it considers
direct talks with Washington urgent to guarantee the Kim-family
regime's survival through diplomatic normalization and economic
assistance in return for its abandonment of nuclear weapons.
six-party formula, which was launched by the Bush administration in
2003 after North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation
Treaty, is still alive under the Obama administration, even though it
overturned many aspects of the Bush administration's foreign policy.
Unlike the US, South Korea thinks it's time that a new negotiating
mechanism be found to redefine its role of focusing on North Korea's
It is no accident that pessimism about the
multilateral security forum has surfaced in the mind of South Korean
President Lee Myung-bak. A conservative who has intensified his
assaults on North Korea in contrast to his liberal predecessors, Lee
suddenly found himself drumming up a new five-party framework without
North Korea. Lee now has an urgent task.
First, while the
six-party talks were aimed at eliminating the North's nuclear cards,
the process seems to have offered Pyongyang time and breathing space to
add nuclear arms to its arsenal.
Secondly, the out-of-focus
six-party talks failed to follow up agreements as each member state
spends time coordinating its own different policy position toward the
North's provocative behavior. There is a little harmony among supposed
allies. In the South's eyes, the clueless six-party talks have already
become, according to one local expert on North Korea, "a structure that
cannot turn a wolf into a sheep" as long as a continuing lack of trust
among the member states persists.
With North Korea a de facto
nuclear-armed state, its weapons and relevant technologies are
certainly bargaining chips to gain leverage with the US. Pyongyang has
learned how to use the multilateral talks' limits to its advantage,
while prevaricating on the agreed-upon conditions imposed by the
In addition, given the complicated
structure of nuclear politics, any kind of talks related to North
Korean issues can't proceed without China's help. Many North Korea
watchers suspect that China, a reliable guardian of the regime in
Pyongyang, will not likely engage in North Korea in a substantive way
because the status quo on the Korean Peninsula suits Beijing, lest
North Korea fall into the American orbit. A peaceful Korean unification
led by South Korea may be a nightmare to China if US troops in a
unified Korea guarded the border overlooking Chinese territory.
this is really a Neanderthal way of looking at a unified Korea. But
Seoul's and Washington's claims that a nuclear-armed North Korea would
be a threat to China are equally hollow given that China is bordered by
Russia, India and Pakistan, all of them with nuclear weapons already.
now, unfortunately, the nuclear weapons program and regime survival are
linked in Pyongyang, despite the world saying it cannot have both.
Pyongyang's brinkmanship is now common, of course, but Kim Jong-il
should be pragmatic in calculating US strategies.
regard, the sentencing of American journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling
to 12 years of hard labor was a potentially fatal error.
Korea needs to be flexible and to abandon brinkmanship. For North
Korea, there is no way to checkmate the US. Freeing the American
journalists with no conditions would be a good signal to send to
Washington. At the same time, Obama's outreach policy should apply to
North Korea as well, letting Kim Jong-il and his merry men realize that
diplomacy is still the most reliable and effective tool of US foreign
In a fast-paced global security environment, the winner
is going to be the person with the greatest ability to adapt. The Obama
administration should prepare to pull the rug out from under North
Korea if it refuses a well-structured carrot. The ailing Kim must know
that a second Korean war would be fatal to his country. For this reason
– Kim's self interest ‑ Obama's "grand bargain" could happen in North
Korea earlier than in Iran.
Lee Byong-Chul is senior
fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation, a non-partisan
policy body based in Seoul, South Korea.