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Last Updated: 08/12/2003
Talking Peace for North Korea
Nicholas Reader

The announcement last week that China, Japan, North and South Korea, Russia and the United States will meet within one month for multilateral talks on the North Korea issue has been greeted worldwide with unbridled optimism ('A Welcome First Step on the Path to Korean Peace', South China Morning Post, 2 August, 2003). A military solution has largely been ignored or downplayed, with the exception of a predictably hawkish article by former CIA Director R. James Woolsey in the Asian Wall Street Journal, detailing why an invasion of North Korea would be logistically easier and politically less sensitive than the invasion of Iraq.

Brussels-based think-tank International Crisis Group describes the North Korea nuclear armament issue as 'the contemporary world's most serious security dilemma'. It also finds that 'effective diplomacy, vigorously pursued and delayed no longer, is the only way... of peacefully resolving [it]'.


The announcement last week that China, Japan, North and South Korea, Russia and the United States will meet within one month for multilateral talks on the North Korea issue has been greeted worldwide with unbridled optimism ('A Welcome First Step on the Path to Korean Peace', South China Morning Post, 2 August, 2003). A military solution has largely been ignored or downplayed, with the exception of a predictably hawkish article by former CIA Director R. James Woolsey in the Asian Wall Street Journal, detailing why an invasion of North Korea would be logistically easier and politically less sensitive than the invasion of Iraq.


Amid the optimism one important line of questioning has largely been ignored. What exactly are these six powers planning to discuss at the talks? The Financial Times addressed this question ('Common Line Sought on Korean Crisis', 8 August, 2003) but failed to provide a meaningful answer. Nonspecific diplomatic sources are quoted as saying ‘a possible settlement is emerging that would involve North Korea agreeing to freeze its nuclear activities in return for a security assurance’.


A quick headline review from the last week reveals an emerging North Korea-policy schism that makes this a very tough question to answer. Differences are apparent not just between the six parties to the talks but also within the parties themselves. If these issues are not resolved before the talks then much of their impetus will be lost.


Reading between the lines


The US claims it is desperate to find a diplomatic solution to secure the cessation of North Korea’s nuclear program and entry of weapons inspectors. Simultaneously as pressing North Korea for diplomatic talks it dispatched one of its least diplomatic diplomats, Under-Secretary of State John Bolton to Seoul to lambaste North Korea with a speech including 41 different references, some distinctly abusive, to describe North Korean President Kim Jong Il (Financial Times, 1 August, 2003). The North Koreans for their part responded to Bolton's speech by describing Bolton as 'human scum and a bloodsucker'. This just one day after agreeing to peace talks in Beijing.


The disarray between diplomacy and aggression translates into weak and undefined US policy. It is unclear how the terms of US demands are to be agreed upon. Think-tanks (International Crisis Group and United States Institute for Peace) are for once as ambiguous as the US Government on this issue. Both list retaliation, armed intervention and coercion as reasonable policy decisions on North Korea, alongside negotiation and toleration. As former US Ambassador and current President of the Korea Society in New York says (New York Times, August 2, 2003): 'We [the US] have an attitude, not a policy'.


Up until last week the South Korean stance might have been an easier one to identify. In recent years it has embarked on a 'Sunshine Policy' of soft engagement through trade and cultural links with North Korea. The death on 4 August of that policy's lynchpin Hyundai Chairman Chung Mong-hun, who reportedly jumped from his 12th floor office window has thrown the Sunshine Policy into disarray. Already an inter-peninsula basketball match has been cancelled, and the future of significant Hyundai developments in North Korea called into question.


Russia and China are clear on the desired outcome and on how it should be arranged. Immediate cessation of the North Korea nuclear program garnered through increasing mutually beneficial economic ties with the North.


Unclear is how they will deal with the significant internal contradictions arising from their participation in talks which essentially constitute blatant coercion of a sovereign state and the abdication of its rights. Both China and Russia are fiercely opposed to intervention of any kind. China is dogmatically opposed to universal human rights. Coercion of North Korea cannot sit comfortably with either party.


Russia particularly is known to have been invited to the talks by North Korea in the hope it will balance the table with more North Korean sympathy. At the same time Russia’s primary interest in the talks is reportedly in securing the connection of the Trans Korean Railway with the Trans Siberian Railway and establishing gas lines that straddle the Koreas (Korea Herald, 4 August, 2003).


Most enigmatic is North Korea. It has intimated through government spokespeople and press conferences that it requires a non-aggression treaty with the US (Yonhap News Agency, 1 August, 2003) and assurances of forthcoming economic and technical assistance. It was previously demanding bilateral discussions with the US but yielded to a multilateral forum under pressure from China. Top of North Korea’s wish list is assumed to be regime survival for the Kim Jong Il-led Communist Party.


Japan is the only party with a clear policy: it is terrified of nuclear proliferation in the Asia Pacific and of a nuclear North Korea. It will agree to anything, at all costs, to prevent it.


Given these profound differences what commonality can be said to exist between the parties at this time?


Selfish interest


It is self interest which has brought these states to agree to the talks and it will be carefully manipulated self interest which could allow all concerned to walk away ready and willing to enforce – or in the case of North Korea – to be enforced upon. This being so, the five parties must be clear in their aims and intentions before sitting down with North Korea. There will be neither time nor political stamina to sustain political infighting during the talks themselves.


Reaching a positive settlement in the talks will require as much talented diplomacy as careful mental footwork. Interpreting the North Korean nuclear program not as an act of aggression but as an economic cry for help born from over 40 years of harsh sanctions allows for a different perspective.


Keeping North Korea isolated and blocking its rehabilitation into the outside world would be to guarantee the escalation of this crisis. Providing limited technical and economic assistance as under the 1994 Geneva Agreement serves no purpose. Rather, integrating North Korea into a regional economy, the importance of which can rapidly overshadow even the most extreme political dogma, holds many significant advantages for all involved.


The relationship between China and South Korea provides some valuable lessons which the negotiators would do well to bear in mind. In 1956 China and South Korea were at war. Between 1960 and 1991 they were sworn enemies. In 1992 diplomatic relations were restored. Today China is the top investment destination for South Korean companies, producing approximately 2% of China's exported goods. Chinese President Hu Jintao and his South Korean counterpart Roo Hoo Hyun attend frequent summits together and even make joint statements on issues such as North Korea. The Wall Street Journal (31 July, 2003) describes their relationship as 'One of the most friction-free in Asia'.


Providing North Korea access to regional markets would resolve many of the core problems the parties face. It would give President Kim Jong Il the regime security he desires as well as alternative sources of capital than trading in internationally outlawed products (or becoming what Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, 2 August, 2003 describes as 'The world's first nuclear Wal-Mart'). Simultaneously it would provide the allied powers with a new economic market and increased power to engage and influence North Korean actions on a multilateral not bilateral basis.


Some smaller token gestures could include information by the North Koreans on the whereabouts of US prisoners of war from the Korean conflict. Repatriation of kidnapped Japanese nationals would be another excellent gesture of goodwill. The US for its part could discuss the return of some of the 70,000 artifacts North Korea alleges it pilfered during the same war (BBC Monitoring, 31 July, 2003).


Whatever agreement is reached with North Korea it must be subject to wider enforcement than merely at the bilateral level. This for two reasons. One to improve chances of compliance by North Korea. The other to bolster 'allied' support for the agreement itself. Barely reported is the allegation that the reason for the failure of the Geneva Agreement was not North Korean default but US failure to make agreed upon shipments of fuel to North Korea (International Herald Tribune, 2 August, 2003).


Final note


To reach a successful conclusion all the parties involved in the forthcoming talks must assess their long-term aims and foster appreciation of the sensitivities of their negotiating counterparts. These talks are of unprecedented historic importance. They must not be diluted by the disorderly internal squabbles that have characterized diplomatic proceedings thus far.





August 4 - North Korea agrees to multilateral talks with the US, China, Russia, Japan, South Korea to discuss the cessation of its nuclear armament program


January 10 - North Korea announces intentions to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.



December 26 - The United Nations nuclear watchdog criticizes North Korea for moving ahead with its nuclear program.


December 22 - North Korea removes UN surveillance equipment from one of its plutonium-producing reactors and announces intentions to re-start its nuclear energy program. The US warns that reactor waste material could be used to produce nuclear weapons. North Korea insists the reactor is being used to generate electricity.


October 16 - North Korea announces that the 1994 US-North Korea Agreed Framework no longer applies.


January 29 - US President Bush calls Iraq, Iran and North Korea the “axis of evil.”



July - US accuses North Korea of proceeding with the development of a long-range missile.


June - North Korea threatens to re-start its nuclear weapons program if US does not provide compensation for delays in fulfilling its obligations under the 1994 Agreed Framework: specifically, the building of light-water nuclear power plants.



December - An international consortium signs a contract to build two light-water nuclear power plants for North Korea.


September - North Korea agrees to freeze long-range missile tests in order to improve international relations.



North Korea demonstrates its ability to strike Japan by launching a rocket over Japan.



North Korea and the US sign the Geneva (Agreed) Framework, in which North Korea agrees to dismantle its nuclear weapons program and the US agrees to facilitate the building of two light-water nuclear generating stations.



North Korea threatens to pull out of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but later retracts.



North Korea signs Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

Nicholas Reader is a freelance journalist. He can be contacted by email at