Resolution of the North Korean nuclear crisis depends to a large degree on the ability of the other five countries in the six-party talks — the United States, Japan, South Korea, China and Russia — to speak with one voice. It is vitally important that Washington and Seoul, in particular, closely coordinate policies; if they do not, Pyongyang will do its best to exploit differences between them. Thus far North Korea has done just that.
As the six-party process remains stalled, the leaders of the U.S. and South Korea have realized that they must work more closely together. At last week’s summit meeting, Presidents George W. Bush and Roh Moo Hyun began to close the gap in their two countries’ positions. South Korea, like the other members of the six-party talks — even North Korea — agrees on the need for a nuclear-weapons-free Korean Peninsula.
Seoul knows that a nuclear North Korea would be destabilizing for all Northeast Asia. As a member of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, South Korea also understands that North Korea’s nuclear ambitions have an impact outside East Asia. Seoul knows that North Korean insecurities are the greatest threat to peace and stability in the region and that only when its nuclear program has been eliminated can Pyongyang rejoin the community of nations and expect aid from other countries.
The problem is getting North Korea to take that critical step and give up its nuclear program in a way that satisfies the rest of the world. It is only natural that the U.S. and South Korea should have different perspectives on how to accomplish that. South Korea is part of a divided peninsula populated by families split in two half a century ago by a vicious civil war. While most Koreans are conscious of the deep ties between the two Koreas, Americans remember the blood spilled in the three-year conflict.
Geography, too, plays a big role in shaping thinking about the North. South Koreans are acutely aware that they would suffer grievously in any war fought on the Korean Peninsula. They have long been held hostage by the 1 million-plus man army deployed just north of the 38th parallel as well as the 11,000 artillery tubes that are within range of Seoul. Nuclear weapons are terrifying, but the South is already threatened with destruction by conventional means. In their more honest moments, though, most South Koreans cannot imagine that the North would use that arsenal against them.
Geography also figures in South Korean concerns about further isolating the North. South Koreans worry about floods of refugees fleeing an unstable North. In short, they fear North Korean weakness, whereas the U.S. and Japan are concerned about North Korea’s strength.
Pyongyang has been masterful at exploiting those differences. It has done its best to paint itself as the aggrieved party — despite having cheated on a variety of international agreements and obligations — and has appealed to pan-Korean interests to win sympathy in the South. South Korean insecurities and anger at the U.S., as well as ham-fisted diplomacy by Washington, have helped the North.
After nearly a yearlong break in the six-party talks, it is clear that the North will listen only when the U.S. and South Korea speak with one voice. The two presidents did their best last week to send one message to Pyongyang: They insisted that they share the same goals and were, in Mr. Roh’s words, “in full and perfect agreement” on basic principles.
Of course, the problem has always been tactics. The South prefers carrots, while the U.S. is quicker to brandish the stick. In fact, however, the U.S. is prepared to offer the security guarantees that the North demands and Seoul has conditioned aid — it is said to have prepared a massive “Marshall Plan-type package” — on Pyongyang’s commitment to denuclearization.
The U.S. is still waiting for a serious response to the proposal it tabled at the last round of six-party talks held one year ago. South Korea would do well to push the North to respond. In their press briefing last Friday, Mr. Bush went out of his way to refer to the North Korean leader as “Mr.” Kim Jong Il, a show of the respect that Pyongyang considers so important.
Little things such as that may be enough to break the logjam. North Korea is in desperate straits — its request for 500,000 tons of fertilizer from the South is a telling sign. Mr. Bush’s use of a simple honorific could give the North the cover it needs to resume negotiations. But keeping Pyongyang at the table, and getting it to negotiate seriously, will require South Korea and the U.S., and the other three partners, to continue to speak as one, and to impress the North that it has no option other than to give up its nuclear dreams and accept its international responsibilities.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.