SEOUL — Four years ago this month, then South Korean President Kim Young Sam and U.S. President Bill Clinton invited North Korea and China to join the United States and South Korea in talks designed to establish a new peace mechanism based on a peace treaty on the Korean Peninsula as well as to seek ways to reduce tensions and engage in confidence-building measures. Although hopes were initially high that an agreement could be reached in due course, or at least substantial progress toward that goal, the anniversary is certain to pass without celebration and most likely with little or any notice.

From the beginning, the enterprise was fraught with difficulty and misunderstanding. In addition, there were untoward incidents, such as the submarine landing on South Korea’s northeast coast in the fall of 1996, and repeated commando raids thereafter, just as the diplomats were getting down to business. All told, it took more than a year and a half to get beyond the preliminary phase and sit down at plenary session in Geneva in December 1997, the city where the last attempt to resolve the Korean problem took place in 1954. However, with the exception of a procedural agreement on the creation of two subcommittees — one dealing with confidence-building measures and the other with a peace mechanism — Geneva II has been no more successful than Geneva I.

For one thing, negotiators have been hampered by the lack of a time frame to focus their efforts and measures progress. This year, which marks the 50th anniversary of the Korean War, might have served as realistic target date for agreeing at least on some tension-reduction and confidence-building measures, such as establishing a hotline and liaison officers or discussions on troop reductions and redeployments. Similarly, 2003, the 50th anniversary of the armistice agreement, could serve as a viable target date for agreement on a new peace treaty.

In addition, four-party talks suffer from more fundamental and multiple defects. They take place in a political environment that lacks a level playing field, with North Korea as the odd man out. While the U.S., South Korea and China all have diplomatic relations with each other, and have had them for some time, North Korea only has diplomatic relations with Beijing. Moreover, China is the only participant with any real influence at all over the North, although on occasion even Chinese diplomats have expressed frustration with the rigidity frequently demonstrated by their old ideological ally.

Third, internal developments in North Korea have conspired against meaningful progress. Severe economic problems resulted in its charging an admission fee in the form of food aid for its participation, but hunger itself is not conducive to a serious negotiating environment. North Korea has also been on the defensive politically as it tries to adjust to the death of Kim Il Sung, its leader for almost half a century, and as his son, Kim Jong Il, tries to consolidate power. Both took place during the onset of negotiations. All these factors were seriously underrated by U.S. and South Korean diplomats, who believed simplistically that a North Korea on the ropes economically could be simply cajoled into a productive negotiating mode.

Finally and decisively, four-party talks sought to resolve the political divide between the two Korea on the basis of diplomacy, not politics, which is its fundamental weakness.

These issues include how to build confidence where none exists, and how to negotiate a peace treaty before the relevant political decisions have been made — decisions involving issues of political legitimacy, regime goals and the future of the political landscape on the peninsula.

Notwithstanding the opaqueness attendant to politics in Pyongyang, there is not a scintilla of evidence that the North has given up the idea that the North is the revolutionary base for the liberation of the South or intends to do so in the foreseeable future. Nor is there the slightest indication that North Korea is willing to recognize the political legitimacy of the South. Both steps would undercut its own legitimacy — predicated on the maintenance of its revolutionary credentials and the achievement of its political goal — the domination of a unified Korean state.

The kind of agreements sought at four-party talks would require the abandonment of both objectives. And since North Korea clearly understands that it cannot overcome the superiority that comes with a superpower connection, it simply demands that connection be severed and that U.S. forces be withdrawn as a precondition.

Finally, a peace treaty is problematic because the war ended in a stalemate and the political causes that led to the conflict have never been resolved, notwithstanding the negotiation of the 1991 Basic Agreement on Nonaggression, Reconciliation, Exchange and Cooperation. However, this agreement merely papered over these deeper differences.

Formally, four-party talks would provide an international imprimatur for that agreement — with the guarantors the two old Korean War combatants — the U.S. and China — joining hands. And although Washington and Beijing put the Korean War behind them two decades ago with the signing of the Shanghai Communique recognizing one China and establishing diplomatic relations, the two Koreas have yet to do so and there is no way that the two external powers can compel them to. Paradoxically, both the causes and the character of the war are impediments to resolving the Korean political conundrum through four-party talks.

Some pundits have written off four-party talks entirely. However, in reality, their future is inextricably tied to talks with the U.S. If North Korea is prepared to respond positively to the offer of normalized diplomatic relations and economic assistance in exchange for the renunciation of the use of force and weapons of mass destruction, the logical corollary flexibility is at the negotiating table in Geneva. A preview of prospects for this approach and the future of four-party talks will be on display in the current round of normalization talks between Tokyo and Pyongyang. When four-party talks resume later this year, the stakes will be greater than ever, although Pyongyang has yet to disclose its hand. Not only is the endgame not yet in sight, the opening gambit has yet to be made.

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