The new year is starting out well for North Korea. On Wednesday, the country announced a breakthrough — the opening of diplomatic relations with Italy — and Pyongyang returned to the offensive in its dealings with its chief interlocutors in the region — Japan, South Korea and the United States. The bluster is to be expected. Negotiations with North Korea are entering a critical phase, and Pyongyang typically responds in this fashion. The governments in Tokyo, Seoul and Washington must not be put off by the harsh rhetoric. They must be careful to coordinate policies, however, and ensure that progress in one set of talks does not come at the expense of the others.
While diplomatic relations with Italy are unlikely to offer North Korea any substantive advantages, they do have symbolic importance. Five other European countries have official ties with Pyongyang, but Italy is the first G7 government to join the list.
The move is part of an Italian strategy to create a role for itself internationally. Although Rome is a member of the G7, it is often overshadowed by other members of the group. To compensate, Italy has been aggressive in building ties with “rogue” governments: Over the years it has courted U.S. ire by maintaining contacts with the Palestine Liberation Organization, Libya, Iran and Algeria. It has done this for several reasons. Frequently, commercial and security concerns have predominated. But Italian governments have also seen their natural role as that of a bridge to “outsiders.” Although they also sometimes see themselves as a kind of back channel for the U.S., that would seem unnecessary in this case, given the many avenues for communication already available.
From the North Korean perspective, building ties with Italy is part of a strategy for widening the country’s diplomatic options. Last year, North Korean diplomats met with several European representatives on the fringes of various international forums. This is the first visible payoff of that policy.
The announcement was greeted with guarded enthusiasm in Tokyo, Seoul and Washington. It is better that North Korea have as many ties to the outside world as possible. The wider the web of relations, the greater the chances that it will moderate North Korean behavior. Pyongyang’s paranoia should diminish when the message about what constitutes acceptable behavior comes from a wide range of sources.
The chief difficulty is that Pyongyang may see new relations as vindication of existing policy, stiffen its spine and encourage it to play one country off another. The first signs are not promising.
Only hours after ties with Italy were announced, North Korea’s ambassador to China, Mr. Chu Chang Jun, was turning up the heat. In his New Year’s message, he quickly scotched hopes for a summit meeting of the leaders of North and South Korea, as proposed by South Korean President Kim Dae Jung. Mr. Chu said that Seoul would have to scrap a national security law, cut military ties with the U.S. and Japan, and Mr. Kim would have to change his attitude before the two countries could hold a summit. Moving on, Mr. Chu then seemed to rule out a widely anticipated trip to the U.S. by a ranking North Korean official, claiming it was impossible “under present circumstances.” Some speculate that he was referring to the U.S. presidential campaign, which means that talks could be on hold for up to a year.
Nor was Japan spared. Mr. Chu reiterated North Korea’s long-standing demand that Tokyo apologize for its policies toward the North and pay compensation for the pain it caused. Putting the burden firmly on Japan to improve relations, the outburst looked like a hardening of positions and seemed to cast a shadow over the talks designed to resume diplomatic relations between our two countries. North Korea’s arrest of a Japanese on charges of espionage only added fuel to the fire.
No one should be intimidated. A glance at the history of negotiations with the North shows that this is a standard North Korean tactic: staking out a maximalist position while throwing the other side off balance. North Korea wants to trigger a bidding war among nations that wish to establish relations with it. That strategy cannot succeed if the governments involved maintain close ties, coordinate their policies and keep their eyes focused on the chief objective: a peace treaty between the two Koreas and normalized diplomatic relations between Pyongyang and all the countries of Northeast Asia. It will take time, but all the pieces are beginning to come into place.
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