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Consensus and differences

Published : Oct 21, 2005 00:00 IST



Controversy erupts over the fine print of the agreement in Beijing, with the DPRK firm on its right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy and the U.S. convinced that it has to roll back its nuclear weapons programme before it received a light-water reactor.


IF the Bush administration is to be believed, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) has now capitulated, a la Muammar Gaddafi's Libya, on the grand American chessboard of nuclear non-proliferation. An examination of the relevant facts does not, however, support the muscular assertion that the DPRK is now left with the only choice of doing the bidding of the United States.

The only concession that the Bush administration is willing to make, to humour the DPRK, is that Washington's political diktat might be expressed as the collective diplomatic will of "the international community". The "international community" referred to here is not the United Nations Security Council (at least, not at this stage) but the six parties that have so far addressed the basic question of Pyongyang's nuclear weapons programme.

The DPRK maintains, in direct contrast to the American stand, that its sovereign right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy has been fully safeguarded. More important, it is eager to ensure that such a right is enshrined as an integral part of any potential and final settlement of the issues relating to the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.

Holding the scales between the U.S. and the DPRK, China is evidently the player with the diplomatic clout required to bring about a peaceful resolution of the concerns of all the relevant countries. China is, therefore, happy with the multilateral consensus that was reached on September 19 by the six-party conference in Beijing. The six parties, apart from China, the host, are the DPRK, the U.S., South Korea, Japan and Russia.

Political controversies erupted quickly over the fine print of the Joint Statement of the six parties. Almost inevitably, China lost no time thereafter in emphasising the enduring importance of addressing the various views in pursuit of further consensus. China's counsel holds the key to the success of the next round of six-party parleys, scheduled for early November.

Of the other major players at the negotiation table, South Korea wants to tread a line that should address the DPRK's legitimate worries. Transparent is Seoul's bid to seek a solution that will not humiliate the DPRK. South Korea's stated objective is to help the DPRK attain rapid economic growth. Seoul is keen to try and ensure that Washington does not squander the progress already made by the six parties in a bid to keep the DPRK "in line".

Japan, which has had a more complex relationship with North Korea than even the U.S., is still very much in the American camp. Tokyo insists that any final deal should render the DPRK's nuclear weapons capability harmless in every conceivable manner. Nonetheless, Japan does not wish to let go of the diplomatic opportunity, when the DPRK is reckoned to be receptive to the non-proliferation concerns of the international community.

Russia retains sufficient diplomatic influence to be able to insist on a solution that could reassure the DPRK's geopolitical neighbours. In addition, a matter of particular interest to Russia, still a nuclear superpower in the U.S.' league, is the importance of sustaining the non-proliferation regime.

The five acknowledged nuclear weapons states - the U.S., Russia, the United Kingdom, France and China - still see themselves as the world's only group of guardian angels with the implicit mandate of the "international community" on matters of atomic weapons. It is in this sense that Russia keeps itself relevant within the six-party process, since its role, as a neighbour of the DPRK, is not reckoned by regional diplomats to be in the same category as that of South Korea or even Japan.

In the early 1950s, India was recognised by the smaller international community of that period as a key player relevant to the basic political issues of the Korean peninsula. The nuclear weapons question was obviously not one of the problems then. Today, India is not even a peripheral player insofar as the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula is concerned. However, Asia-Pacific diplomats tend to view India's latest proactive role at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) over Iran's nuclear programme as an effort by New Delhi to recapture its "moral high ground" of the early 1950s.

India's relative irrelevance to the Korean nuclear question is more a diplomatic aside than a substantive matter at this point. But regional observers do not rule out the possibility of India becoming relevant to the Korean issue at some stage in the future, if Washington's emerging "strategic entente" with New Delhi acquires deeper implications for the wider international community, including China and Japan in East Asia. For the foreseeable future, China will remain the arbiter on the issues of Korean denuclearisation as long as the U.S. does not give up the option of seeking a peaceful solution through dialogue and "consensus". The manner in which China steered the recent, fourth, round of the six-party talks, which resulted in the September 19 Joint Statement, is the main subject of regional diplomatic interest, behind the scenes, though.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang emphasised in Beijing on September 21 that "the Joint Statement was adopted unanimously by the six parties". Responding to a question of whether the post-statement fracas between Washington and Pyongyang was caused by a misunderstanding of the document itself, Qin said: "I don't think the DPRK misunderstood the Joint Statement. The current questions, concerns and interests of the parties are exactly what should be gradually resolved in the process of the six-party talks."

The next round of the parleys in November, the fifth in the ongoing series, will be the first test of the durability of the Joint Statement. The current dispute between the DPRK and the U.S. is about a central theme of the negotiations: whether the DPRK should be the party to take the first step in implementing the Joint Statement. Obviously, the U.S. insists that the statement cannot be more emphatic in placing the onus squarely on the shoulders of Kim Jong Il, the DPRK leader. The view of the U.S. is that the DPRK should first re-accede to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and agree to abide, once again, by the "safeguards regime" of the IAEA before the other parties can contemplate any steps to reassure Pyongyang.

For the DPRK, though, the statement cannot be more self-evident in scope, but in a totally different perspective. Pyongyang says it will rejoin the NPT and comply with the IAEA's safeguards "immediately" upon the transfer of light-water reactors to the DPRK from the U.S. The issue of the light-water reactors was the troublesome puzzle that had necessitated a "recess" in August during the fourth round of the talks. The post-recess second phase of that round took place in Beijing from September 13 to 19, culminating in the Joint Statement on the guiding principles for the future negotiations towards a final settlement.

What does the statement say on the two issues of Pyongyang's NPT-IAEA-related diplomacy and the commitment of the other five parties on the issue of light-water reactors to augment the DPRK's electricity supplies? Article 1 of the Joint Statement specifies, inter alia, as follows: "The DPRK committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programmes and returning, at an early date, to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons [NPT] and to IAEA Safeguards." In a later paragraph sequentially, the same Article further specifies: "The DPRK stated that it has the right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy. The other parties expressed their respect and agreed to discuss, at an appropriate time, the subject of the provision of light-water reactor to the DPRK."

The DPRK fired the first post-statement salvo on September 20 by shining the spotlight on its interpretation of the relevant points. Pyongyang characterised the passage about "the provision of light-water reactors to the DPRK" as the very "basis of confidence-building" in its deeply troubled relationship with Washington, which can be traced to the Korean War of the early 1950s.

Spelt out in black-and-white terms in the latest statement is the explicit agreement of not only the U.S. but also the four others to discuss the issue of providing the DPRK with at least one light-water reactor in recognition of its sovereign right to the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. It is quite immaterial whether the authentic Joint Statement speaks of one or more than one light-water reactor.

What is important, though, is the fact that the statement is singularly silent about an actual delivery of light-water reactors to Pyongyang. The commitment by the U.S., South Korea, Japan, Russia and China relates only to their willingness to discuss the possibility of making these supplies available. More specifically, these five countries have agreed to enter into such discussion with the DPRK "at an appropriate time". It is a matter of common sense that the "appropriate time" should be acceptable to all five countries, each of which can insist on determining the timeline itself.

Beyond pure common sense, though, lies the "political sense" that drove the diplomatic efforts resulting in this document. This aspect is implicit in the impressions of some Asian diplomats and observers on the regional circuit. The "political sense" suggests that "the appropriate time" will be a matter of choice that cannot be left entirely to these five countries, with the DPRK having no say at all. The reasoning is that the statement, which does not have the status of an international treaty or even a memorandum of understanding, should still be regarded as a document based on the principle of "harmonious construction" as regards the various commitments by all the six parties.

Glossing over such niceties of diplomacy, the U.S. has virtually accused the DPRK of reading the Joint Statement upside down and misinterpreting it. However, Washington has not slammed the door in Pyongyang's face. State Department spokesman Ereli maintained, in the context of Pyongyang's version of the new priorities, that the statement "is still very much the basis for moving forward, which is another round [of six-party talks] in November". The U.S. is said to remain focussed on working towards the planned round.

The crux of Washington's objections to Pyongyang's perceived misinterpretation of the statement is that the DPRK should first honour its commitment to rejoin the NPT at "an early date". This, in the U.S.' calculations, has nothing to do with the promised dialogue between the five and the DPRK on light-water reactors. An early re-accession to the NPT by the DPRK is not at all linked to "the appropriate time" for the discussions on light-water reactors. The reasoning of this order, by and on behalf of the U.S., is based on the insistence that the very first step by the DPRK towards the dismantlement of all its nuclear facilities, including research reactors, is its re-accession to the NPT "at an early date".

This may reflect the common-sense interpretation of the Joint Statement, given the sequence of commitments under Article 1 and also given the basic issue being addressed: Pyongyang's nuclear weapons programme. However, the political sense of diplomacy, which underpins the document, is that the DPRK will obviously be the master of its own decision about how early it could rejoin the NPT-IAEA regimes.

The critical mass of diplomacy in this sphere is that the Joint Statement represents a serious attempt by all the six parties to chart out a road map for the actual negotiations on converting the entire Korean peninsula, not just the DPRK's territory, into a "denuclearised" zone.

Given the deep distrust between the U.S. and the DPRK, a challenging question emerges: will Pyongyang agree to rejoin the NPT-IAEA regimes "at an early date" and thereafter wait for "an appropriate time" when discussions on light-water reactors might begin? In the "political sense of diplomacy", this question will have to be addressed before and during the future rounds of the six-party talks. This is exactly what China has indicated by emphasising the imperative of further consensus.

Viewed differently, the arguments of the U.S. and its like-minded fellow-negotiators flow from the premise that the DPRK's mandatory re-accession to the NPT-IAEA regimes is directly related to the dismantlement of that country's nuclear weapons programme. The U.S. spokesman has asserted that the agreement on guiding principles is explicit. It is said that the DPRK's latest commitment is to the dismantlement of its existing nuclear facilities and atomic weapons and not just a freeze of the ongoing activities on this front.

In the U.S.-inspired perspective, the possible provision of light-water reactors to the DPRK is related to another aspect of that country's agenda - its perception that it cannot do without the peaceful use of nuclear energy even if the South Koreans and others supply huge quantities of electricity from conventional sources.

These issues imply some form of a power play between Washington and Pyongyang. It is in this context that Washington and Seoul have now affirmed that no nuclear weapons are placed on South Korean territory. Seoul has reaffirmed a 1992 accord with Pyongyang - the Joint Declaration on the Denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.

It is in this milieu of highly complicated issues of national pride and sovereignty at one end of the spectrum and of power politics at the other end that China's role as the host of the six-party process is becoming more important than ever before. Wang Jisi, an eminent Chinese commentator on Beijing's relationship with Washington, is of the view that any initiatives by the U.S. to "punish the North Koreans... would pose a severe test to [the] U.S.' relations with China as well as with South Korea".

This perceptive remark about South Korea is also to be seen in the context of his parallel comment that "the most important factor in shaping geostrategic trends [in Asia] remains the China-U.S. relationship".

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Oct 21, 2005.)



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