Eastern equations

Print edition : May 09, 2008

The U.S. response to the denuclearisation talks in Singapore is cautious, but North Korea is upbeat about the outcome.

in Singapore

U.S. envoy Christopher Hill with mediapersons after the April 8 talks.-ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP

A GOLDEN norm in serious bilateral parleys and also multilateral talks is that negotiators should avoid bluff and bluster and stay as close to the truth as possible. The reason is simple but profound. Any loss of credibility, sustained through bluff and bluster, will be difficult to repair for the next round of talks or the next issue to be talked about. However, the norm does not apply to the posturing by negotiators in front of the media; because the independent media, by definition, are politically neutral and are not a participant in inter-state dialogue. And, in any case, the media always have a job to do, regardless of the credibility of the states and the non-state actors.

Viewed in this perspective, the talks between the United States and the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK, the northern part of the divided Korean peninsula) on the issue of the latters denuclearisation were characterised by differing perceptions of the truth. Chief U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill did not, after the talks in Singapore on April 8, characterise the outcome of his engagement with the DPRKs Kim Kye-gwan as either a breakthrough or simply a breakdown. Usually ebullient as a post-parley performer in front of the media, Hill could not this time bring himself to say anything more than that it was a good day of talks in Singapore.

In contrast, the DPRKs generally media-shy negotiator was far more upbeat in assessing the talks. Kim said he and his American counterpart had narrowed [the] differences between the two sides a lot. More important, the DPRKs Foreign Ministry was effusive on the following day, saying publicly that the two sides had in fact reached a consensus. The consensus was said to have two key elements: political compensation to the DPRK in exchange for its declarations about its nuclear facilities and activities.

An inevitable question was whether Hills post-parley circumspection was all about his wanting to get the approval of his political bosses for whatever he had indicated to the DPRK as being acceptable to the U.S. He almost said as much to the media by maintaining that he would rather await further instructions from Washington than announce any results of the talks.

Why, then, did the DPRK, no novice in engaging the U.S. in talks now as in war in the early 1950s, choose to say that consensus had been reached on some critical issues? The reason has much to do with Pyongyangs sense of being a U.S.-peer as negotiator. So, it wants the building blocks of any final accord on denuclearisation to be fashioned first in talks with the U.S. before the others in the relevant six-party process could agree to such details. The others in the ongoing six-party process are China as the proactive host, the Republic of Korea (RoK, as the southern part of the divided peninsula is known), Japan, and Russia.

The process, initially aimed at preventing the DPRK from crossing the nuclear Rubicon, suffered what could have been a mortal blow in October 2006. Pyongyangs announcement of a nuclear weapon test surprised and shocked the six-party protagonists to the point of despair. And, the United Nations Security Council began moving against the DPRK, with its one-time patron, China, also articulating its displeasure over that nuclear test. However, the DPRK soon began exuding self-confidence as a nation with a deterrent against the old enemy, the U.S. Unsurprisingly in that new context, Chinas efforts to keep the six-party process on track, despite the setback caused by the DPRKs nuclear test, bore fruit.

And now, too, the DPRK banks heavily on the asymmetric political efficacy of a nuclear arsenal, however tiny it might be in comparison with the mammoth U.S. stockpile. This should explain Pyongyangs April 9 announcement of a consensus on the contentious declaration issue.

With no finer details of this consensus publicly announced as this report is written, it could be gleaned that the DPRK still fancies its chances in the end game. The end game, as seen from Pyongyangs perspectives, relates not only to its own denuclearisation but also a new security architecture in Greater East Asia, not to mention the denuclearisation of the RoK as well under the protective nuclear wings of the U.S.

A March 2002 satellite image of the Yongbyon nuclear facility in North Korea, which was shut down in the first phase of the disarmament process following an agreement reached in the six-party talks in February 2007.-AFP

One of the more immediate contentious issues regarding the declaration is that the U.S. has repeatedly asked the DPRK to disclose fully and truthfully its suspected uranium enrichment programme. In all, the DPRK has been called upon to update the other five parties about its existing stockpile of plutonium-derived nuclear weapons and fissile materials of all kinds. Another key demand, not fulfilled by around mid-April, pertains to a full disclosure by Pyongyang regarding all its nuclear activities and programmes of the past, present and the future.

The political compensation also remained nebulous in the absence of any detailed statement by either the U.S. or the DPRK, or even China, by about the same period in April. However, Pyongyang had, in the past, outlined its preferences for a package of political compensation. These ranged from credible security guarantees by major powers about the stability of the present regime in Pyongyang and of the DPRK as a military-first state, to assured economic assistance.

In the grand scheme of the six-party process, the declaration is a pivotal intermediate step towards the DPRKs denuclearisation. While being an integral part of the so-called second phase, the declaration is also the critical bridge to the third phase. In the first phase, already implemented to the satisfaction of all concerned, the DPRK had verifiably shut down all its nuclear facilities at the Yongbyon complex, the suspected nerve centre of the activities that culminated in the detonation of a modest-yield atomic weapon in October 2006. And, the disabling of these facilities, under international surveillance, has been on stream in the second phase.

However, the declaration alone can set the parameters for the dismantling of all of DPRKs nuclear facilities and material capabilities, apparently in the third phase. As envisioned under the agreements reached by the six parties, prior to the Singapore talks, denuclearisation would imply the total disarming of North Korea, with regard to its existing stockpiles of nuclear weapons as also fissile materials, and also its capabilities to re-wind and resume its dismantled atomic arms programmes.

By any reckoning, the scale of the proposed externally-driven nuclear disarmament by a sovereign state is mind-boggling. However, the U.S., as the prime protagonist of this objective, tends to see it as a workable proposition. One reason for U.S. optimism stems from the relative ease, in a political sense, with which the nuclear-armed former Soviet republics were denuclearised after the end of the Cold War.

In that endeavour, the U.S. found itself well served by a congruence of strategic interests of the nuclear disarmament kind, the willing partner in that case being the post-Soviet Russia.

And now, China figures in a similar category in the grand calculations of the U.S. with regard to the DPRKs denuclearisation. China, once accused by the West as being lukewarm towards nuclear non-proliferation, has certainly made common cause with the U.S. to bring about the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. There are several reasons for Chinas strategic choice of this magnitude, one of them being a desire to deny Japan, still a post-imperial pacifist at U.S. bidding, any strong reason to become a nuclear power. While China surely has taken into account its neighbourhood, dominated by fragile equations among major and aspiring powers, the U.S., as a global power, continues to nurture its old forward presence in East Asia.

An emerging question in this situation is whether the U.S. continues to remain careful about nurturing its strategic congruence with China insofar as the denuclearisation of the DPRK is concerned.

Totally unrelated to these nuclear disarmament puzzles, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has cautioned the burgeoning critics of China in the West in the context of the Beijing Olympics this year. Singapore has good relations with both the U.S. and China, and the comments by Lee deserve to be noted at some length.

Addressing the Asia Forum, organised in Singapore by the London School of Economics on April 11, Lee said: The Olympics is Chinas coming out party, to celebrate its progress and opening up to the world. They sent the Olympic torch overseas in what is described as a journey of harmony. But not surprisingly, Chinas opponents see this as a golden opportunity to make their point. So, as the torch travels the world, it has faced challenges at virtually every stop so far. Vivid TV images of demonstrators waving banners, scuffling with police, and making concerted assaults to snuff out the flame are beamed live around the world, achieving an asymmetrical prominence, and so influencing public opinion against China and the Games.

North Korean negotiator Kim Kye-gwan.-JENNIFER TAN/REUTERS

Following this with political punch lines, Lee, well versed in both English and Mandarin, said: Whatever the intentions of the demonstrators, the people of China believe they want to inflict maximum humiliation on China and the Chinese people more than the Chinese government. The outrage in China, especially among the young, can be read on the flooded Internet bulletin boards, all carrying virulent anti-foreign sentiments. Pity they are in unintelligible Chinese ideographs. Were they in the English language, young Americans and Europeans would realise that these displays of contempt for China and things Chinese will have consequences in their lifetime, well beyond the Olympic Games.

The relevant poser in the North Korean nuclear context is whether the U.S. will continue to keep Official China in good humour for the entire course. While it is true that the DPRK is keen to have a say that is independent of China over the future security architecture in Greater East Asia, the entire process is kept in orbit, as it were, only by the Washington-Beijing consensus.

In the 2007 report on U.S.-China relations, prepared by a task force headed by Carla Hills and Dennis Blair under the auspices of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, a relevant portion of the Conclusion reads as follows: Since President Nixon opened the door to China [in the early 1970s], the United States has benefited greatly from that relationship, both economically and strategically. ... the challenges confronting the United States today whether combating terrorism, limiting the proliferation and spread of weapons of mass destruction, reining in North Koreas nuclear ambitions, ensuring energy security, or protecting the global environment will be more effectively managed with Chinas cooperation than without.

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