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Regional hurdles

Print edition : Mar 09, 2007

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South Korea's chief negotiator Kim Kwan-se (right) shakes hands with his North Korean counterpart Maeng Kyong-il at a meeting at the North Korean border town of Kaesong on February 15.-AP

South Korea's chief negotiator Kim Kwan-se (right) shakes hands with his North Korean counterpart Maeng Kyong-il at a meeting at the North Korean border town of Kaesong on February 15.-AP

There is some apprehension that East Asian realities may undermine the consensus among the six parties to the nuclear deal.

WHAT are the political cross-currents that shaped the six-party accord on the North Korean nuclear arms issue? Do they hold the potential to make the accord tick or render it unworkable?

Questions of this kind have troubled backstage diplomacy across East Asia for two reasons. First, the state news agency of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, as North Korea is officially known), reporting the accord on February 13 with studied brevity, made a seemingly matter-of-fact reference to the central issue that was agreed upon. It noted that the accord was all about "a temporary suspension of the operation" of North Korea's nuclear facilities. Secondly, and no less importantly, Japan, often wrongly seen by the wider international community as a peripheral player with regard to the denuclearisation of North Korea, has chosen to distance itself from a crucial aspect of the accord - the promise of an initial package of energy aid to Pyongyang.

Japan has strong concerns that govern its action. Tokyo has emphasised that it is not gravitating away from its long-standing military ally, the United States, in taking this stand. Yet, the signs of an actual or potential political rift between the U.S. and Japan over Pyongyang's nuclear programme cannot be missed. The question is whether this incipient reality can undermine the new agreement. Aware of this possibility, Tokyo has asserted that it remains committed to the "initial actions" that had been agreed upon in Beijing.

On balance, however, it is no idle proposition to question whether the ground realities that govern the unrelated methods of Tokyo and Pyongyang could affect the current consensus among the six parties, which include China, as the host, South Korea and Russia.

These questions, with no likelihood of firm answers until at least the end of the one-month period set for the formation of several working groups, do not at all detract from the credit that China deserves as the long-persevering host. There is also no sign that the U.S. is indeed the player that can unilaterally set the agenda for the peninsula's denuclearisation. A related but unconventional poser is whether the U.S. will at all have sleepless nights if North Korea's nuclear weapons programme is not reversed and if Pyongyang stays armed with a limited nuclear stockpile.

The "initial actions" do not address the fundamental question about North Korea's "sovereign right" to produce and possess atomic weapons outside the framework of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Linked to this aspect is Pyongyang's controversial "walk-out" in the recent past from the grossly discriminatory NPT regime.

A logical corollary in this context is the strength of Japan's political will to remain wedded to its policy of pacifism and desist from crossing the nuclear Rubicon and producing the atom bomb. Will the U.S. tacitly encourage Japan to exercise the nuclear arms option if North Korea cannot be reined in? These unspoken, if not unthinkable, puzzles have gained a greater traction in the wake of the latest Beijing accord. In all, therefore, China's role as the proactive host can acquire greater importance in the future. Not surprisingly in such a situation, Pyongyang has made no secret of its desire to see and project itself as a player with an autonomous plan of action. The North Korean state news agency, while reporting the outcome of the Beijing talks, made no mention of China's enormous efforts as the host. The only major points made in the report were the affirmation about a "temporary suspension" of the nuclear activities and the assertion that the accord would set the stage for direct talks between Pyongyang and Washington for the normalisation of their equation.

Doubly significant, therefore, is the assiduous fashion in which the U.S. has now chosen to compliment China. Washington does not also fight shy of admitting, with of course some diplomatic gloss, that it is China, not the U.S. itself, that can really help bring about a positive denouement to the denuclearisation of the peninsula.

Of the other participants in the process, Russia, once a player with much influence over North Korea's strategic thinking, has no unilateral clout to push or guide Pyongyang towards denuclearisation. Yet, an increasingly resurgent post-Soviet Russia cannot also be ignored by North Korea.

South Korea, North Korea's ethnic neighbour, does possess the unique advantage of cultural affinity that transcends their political and strategic differences. Yet, Pyongyang has often shown some disdain for the Republic of Korea (as the South is officially known) because of its close military links with the U.S. Nonetheless, South Korea tends to see in the Beijing accord a real opportunity to try and play the role of a regional statesman in addressing its neighbour's nuclear arms issue. A factor that it wants to capitalise on is its recent record of trying to cease functioning as a U.S. satellite and to regain autonomy over matters of war and peace on the Korean peninsula.

As North Korea tends to see it, a singular event that made the accord possible had nothing much to do with the varying diplomatic skills and political clouts of China, South Korea, Japan and Russia. The latest session was preceded by a highly publicised bilateral meeting between the U.S. representative Christopher Hill and North Korea's chief delegate Kim Kye-gwan. This meeting took place in Berlin and not Beijing - an aspect that North Korea wishes to emphasise in its efforts to prove its ability to act autonomously of China, which is regarded by the international community as the only external player with any realistic influence over Pyongyang.

There is some reason for North Korea's constant political efforts to emphasise its ability to engage the "hostile" U.S. in direct parleys. While critics see this as an unrealistic obsession, North Korea tends to believe that it can strike the best bargain only through direct talks with the U.S., an "enemy" since the 1950-53 Korean War.

Not surprisingly, the U.S. and the nuclear issue dominated the celebrations of the 65th birthday of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, in Pyongyang on February 16. The country pledged to strengthen its defences against a possible pre-emptive U.S. military strike against its nuclear facilities. Kim Jong-il was hailed at a ceremonial concert as the leader who made North Korea a nuclear power - a fact seen in Pyongyang as an insurance against any U.S. strike. One of the messages conveyed through the celebratory banners was that the country could become a nuclear power only because of its "military first" policy.

The rise of the DPRK's obsession about the U.S. is roughly in proportion to Pyongyang's efforts to de-emphasise its debt of gratitude towards China. A former Soviet-era Russian diplomat, who had much to do with the North Korean issue during his career, reported, on the basis of a recent visit to China, that the Chinese people were amazed at the DPRK's growing reluctance to acknowledge the decisive role that Beijing played in helping Pyongyang ward off the U.S. threat in the Korean War.

Official China sees the North Korean issue without any such emotional hangover. As a rapidly rising economic giant and a potential superpower in the political realm, China is projecting itself as a player of conscience on the world stage. On nuclear non-proliferation as a global concern, China has made common cause with the U.S. in recent years. This is reflected in Beijing's participation in the unanimous censure-and-sanctions voting by the United Nations Security Council following the DPRK's first nuclear weapon test last October.

American policymakers, under the Bush administration, have also consistently sought to co-opt China as "a responsible stake-holder" in the current global order, including the so-called nuclear order. American opinion-makers, long-time China-watchers such as David M. Lampton, and others have even taken the line that it is Beijing rather than Washington that wants to sustain the present global political system. Any such viewpoint is highly debatable. At one level, China has certainly sought to use judiciously its veto privileges and consolidate the gains of its current ascendance on the global stage. To this extent, Beijing may appear to have developed a stake in the existing global framework of power play. However, China has also not missed opportunities to let American policy-planners know that it cannot be treated as a willing partner or ally of the U.S. in regard to the latter's unilateral actions to address global concerns. The evolving Iranian nuclear issue is a case in point. China is actively engaged in dialogue with Russia, India and even Japan. The China-Japan equation is still far from settled, given their historical concerns about each other. But the Chinese dialogue with India and Russia has gained momentum. On balance, and in the space-age terminology, China has often signalled that it can never be counted upon as a potential U.S. satellite or even as an aspiring hegemonic power at the centre of any new political universe.

However, the U.S.' expectations about China in the North Korean context form a `live' reality at stake. The U.S. has, in many respects, "subcontracted" its job of denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula to China. It is the comfort of China's status as the host of the talks that the U.S. has repeatedly sought. Even after the Berlin talks, the U.S. clarified that no deal-making was intended and that the China-presided process would remain the only forum for actual negotiations on Pyongyang's nuclear disarmament. Some critics do see the Berlin talks as the political pacemaker that helped clinch the accord. North Korea itself wants to strengthen this impression. The reality, though, is that the U.S., increasingly battered in Iraq and badly clueless about Iran's nuclear arms "programmes", is willing to talk to North Korea directly. But the bottom-line is that the U.S. is unwilling, as of writing, to strike any deal behind China's back.

It is this aspect that raises some curiosity about the likely impact of the Beijing accord on China itself. East Asian diplomats are largely agreed that Beijing will be in a position to veto any potential accord that might be seen to go against China's own long-term interests. As long as the U.S. depends heavily on China for diplomatic solace on the North Korean issue, Pyongyang will, despite its recent proclivities, find it tough to cut a deal directly with the U.S. Not only that. The DPRK does not want to give up its existing stock of nuclear weapons and fissile material. However, authoritative Chinese sources emphasise that Beijing, while not practising an "Asian version of the Monroe Doctrine", cannot also be oblivious to the chain reactions that North Korea's continued possession of a nuclear arsenal might produce across East Asia. So, China faces as much a diplomatic challenge as an opportunity in seeking to take the process forward.

For Japan, any possibility that the DPRK will retain its existing nuclear stockpile and remain a "nuclear power" at whatever level on the scale of lethality is, indeed, unacceptable. Japan is deeply distressed that the Beijing accord does not address this long-term issue and does not also focus on the DPRK's suspected recourse to the uranium enrichment route to make the atom bomb. The current accord only speaks, indirectly, about the DPRK's plutonium use for making nuclear weapons. To this extent, Japan is disappointed that the U.S., given its "global" interests and preoccupations, has, for now, settled for a deal that can only be unsatisfactory to Washington and Tokyo.

Japanese spokesman Tomohiko Taniguchi told this correspondent that "there is no split at all between Tokyo and Washington". However, Japan tends to believe that the DPRK's hard-to-get gamesmanship has to be met with tough counter-measures. It is in this situation that Japan now insists that the DPRK should first address the issues concerning its abduction of several Japanese nationals during the Cold War period. Tokyo now wants to see "progress" over this humanitarian issue. Only then will Japan participate in the scheme of extending energy aid to the DPRK so as to encourage it to move towards "an eventual abandonment" of the Yongbyon nuclear facility, the nerve centre of the plutonium-based weapons project.

Japan has given itself "a 30-day window" to assess the DPRK's response. This is the time-frame set for the formation of various working groups, including the one on Japan-DPRK normalisation. The critical fact is that Japan has raised the stakes about the abduction issue, although this can be settled by the working group. Japan's response is that the DPRK has not been honest in the past about the abduction issue. So Tokyo expects its pressure tactics to do the trick at least this time.

The DPRK lost no time to counter the Japanese move. Pyongyang argues that the six-party accord is a collective pledge, consisting of parallel commitments by the DPRK on the one side and the other five parties, including Japan, on the other. In such a situation, there is no room for any of the six parties to renege on any of the points that have been agreed to. So, the DPRK's argument runs on these lines: If one of the parties can distance itself from any aspect of the latest accord, where then is a collective deal? It is not clear, at the time of writing, whether North Korea intends to use the Japanese move as a strategic ploy to question the legitimacy of the accord, if not also to tear it up.

The DPRK has, in the past, argued that Japan was irrelevant to any multilateral process of addressing the nuclear issue. But, now, Japan's move may have given the DPRK an opening to explore ways to retain its nuclear stockpile and pursue further weaponisation. If, in the end, it remains a "nuclear power", will pacifist Japan reconsider its nuclear arms abstinence? And, will the U.S., which is now being seen by a number of Japanese people as having let down Japan, agree? As of now, Japan nestles comfortably under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. However, these questions have now acquired a sharper edge than ever before.

Among all of the DPRK's Asian neighbours - which do not include Russia, a Eurasian power - South Korea is upbeat about the latest accord. Seoul has moved to resume high-level contacts with Pyongyang. As of mid-February, a bilateral ministerial meeting was agreed upon. South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, who was earlier criticised at home for having failed to prevent the DPRK from conducting a nuclear weapons test, is now raising visions of a possible inter-Korean summit.

Seoul tends to see the Beijing accord as a window of opportunity for greater economic integration between the two Koreas - a prospect that could even hasten Korean reunification, a project that has hardly had any traction in recent years.

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