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T he crisis over North Korea’s attempted acquisition by stealth of a nuclear capability through enriched uranium processing provides a golden opportunity for institutionalizing a process of concerted multilateral diplomacy.

Last week at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Los Cabos, Mexico, the leaders of the United States, Japan and South Korea formally adopted a full court press against Pyongyang, demanding that it take immediate steps to dismantle its newly-disclosed secret nuclear program in a verifiable manner.

For its part, North Korea has called for negotiations with the U.S. on the subject, an approach the U.S. has rejected in favor of a multilateral effort to convince North Korea to comply with the terms of the existing Agreed Framework, Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and Declaration of Denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula as well as the spirit of the 2000 Pyongyang summit. For the moment, however, diplomacy is being pursued ad hoc and bilaterally.

What North Korea has in mind is the negotiation of a nonaggression pact with the U.S. that would guarantee its security, although its own behavior constitutes the greatest threat at present.

Nevertheless, even Dr. William Perry, former U.S. secretary of defense and North Korean policy coordinator under the Clinton administration, has conceded that North Korean fears are real — even if they bear little relation to reality.

However, negotiations cannot be conditioned on the abandonment of a project that has violated past agreements and treaties to which the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is a party. But what if North Korea does comply with the demands of the three security partners — the U.S., Japan and South Korea — to shut down its underground program? What can it expect in return?

Further, assuming that North Korea’s desire for security assurances is reasonable under the circumstances it finds itself, should it be guaranteed bilaterally, for instance by the U.S. alone as in the case of South Korea, or multilaterally, by the three other regional powers — China, Russia and Japan — and the U.S. collectively? More broadly, should the security of the two Koreas be guaranteed by those four powers in a single omnibus package?

Favorable convergence

The evolution of the Korean problem over the last five years suggests that a multilateral regional approach has a good chance of bearing fruit.

The two Koreas appear to have ruled out a renewal of conventional warfare on the peninsula on the basis of the 2000 Pyongyang Declaration, no matter how much stock one places in its provisions for reconciliation.

Nevertheless, only the possibility, not the reality, of a permanent peace has been realized and the current situation is fraught with the danger of miscalculation or rogue behavior given the presence of hundreds of thousands of troops cheek-to-jowl across the DMZ as well as large concentrations of North Korean forces within striking distance of the South Korean capital.

Today, all four powers support President Kim Dae Jung’s “sunshine policy” of engagement toward the North to varying degrees and even North Korea has been shown itself open to tangible — if minuscule — progress across a range of issues from economic to family reunions to sports exchanges. But while the two Koreas pursue dialogue, they increasingly look to the outside powers to help sustain the process, although understandably unwilling to brook outside interference.

The four-party talks between 1997 and 1999 brought together the two Koreas with outside powers — the U.S. and China — with the goal of creating a new peace regime on the peninsula and enhanced confidence-building.

In sum, they had the positive effect of bringing the two Koreas into the same room on a sustained basis for the first time since the 1992 Basic Agreement on Nonaggression, Reconciliation Exchange and Cooperation was signed in 1991. The latter constituted a comprehensive road map for pursuing the process of inter-Korean detente and reconciliation and to which the Pyongyang summit declaration made reference.

Today’s regional threat

Indeed, it is highly likely that the four-party talks helped lay the foundation for the summit itself. But whereas these talks were primarily concerned with peninsula issues as a way of enhancing regional security, today it is regional security that is primarily threatened as demonstrated by the alarm expressed by and positive response elicited thus far from China and Russia — in addition to Japan — with respect to curbing the prospect of nuclear weapons appearing on the peninsula.

Further, whereas the four-party talks were limited to the signatories of the 1953 Korean War Armistice Accords plus South Korea — a nonsignatory by choice but obviously a concerned party — a six-party meeting would broaden participation to include Russia and Japan, who both balked at their exclusion in the former. However, they have been the chief proponents of six-party talks and could be expected to take an active part along with Kim Dae Jung, an early and vocal supporter of a Northeast Asian regional security dialogue that he views as contributing to peace and security on the Korean Peninsula.

Presumably, such talks would lay the foundation for a comprehensive regional security dialogue and a low-level regional security regime, possibly including confidence-building and preventive diplomacy. This would, in turn, improve the prospect for the participants in four-party talks to resume negotiations to replace the 1953 Armistice Agreement — a half-century-old next year — with a new peace regime, their initial goal.

The U.S. does not appear eager for a faceoff with North Korea and has taken a remarkably low-key approach in view of past hostile rhetoric from the Bush administration regarding Pyongyang’s credibility and trustworthiness as an interlocutor.

Indeed, Washington has spoken of a bold new approach that was currently in the works after an initial period of skepticism, coupled with a policy review that proclaimed its willingness to engage Pyongyang “any time, any place, anywhere” with an open agenda that has now been put on hold by the recent revelations.

Six-party talks would have the added advantage of creating a political environment that would by its very existence serve to assuage Pyongyang’s fears, particularly if the U.S took a lead role. It would also serve to accelerate the process of Japanese-North Korean normalization and eventually parallel talks between the U.S. and North Korea. But first, the nuclear cloud now hanging over the peninsula needs to be cleared away.

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