Intervening for peace

Published : Feb 14, 2003 00:00 IST

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov (left) with Jo Myong Rok, First Vice-Chairman of North Korea's National Defence Commission, in Pyongyang on January 20. - KOREAN NEWS SERVICE/REUTERS

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov (left) with Jo Myong Rok, First Vice-Chairman of North Korea's National Defence Commission, in Pyongyang on January 20. - KOREAN NEWS SERVICE/REUTERS

China and Russia take the lead in engaging North Korea and persuading the United States to seek a peaceful resolution to the new Korean crisis.

THE current international diplomatic furore surrounding North Korea following the expulsion of two International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors from the country and its subsequent withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) seems to have dragged former "big brothers" Russia and China into the heat of international diplomacy to avert yet another crisis.

A crisis was brewing as early as October 2002, when United States Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, on a visit to Pyongyang, confronted North Korean authorities with evidence that the country was pursuing a nuclear energy and missiles programme. Kelly said this on the basis of U.S. intelligence reports detailing evidence of a secret North Korean uranium-enriching programme, developed in defiance of the Agreed Framework of 1994. The situation deteriorated through October and November until U.S. President George Bush threatened to cut off all aid to North Korea, including the critical oil shipments, which were guaranteed under the 1994 treaty. North Korea reacted belligerently. It rejected calls to open its nuclear facilities for inspection and expelled the IAEA inspectors. This was followed by the North Korean decision to re-activate its nuclear facility at Yongbyon and withdraw from the NPT.

The sudden development of an explosive situation on the Korean peninsula on the eve of a possible second Gulf War has created a crisis for the U.S., making it resort to hectic diplomacy by pulling in neighbouring countries into the fray to help defuse it. In the on-going diplomatic parleys, Russia, China, South Korea and Japan are the active participants.

In the hurry to find a solution to the problem, Pyongyang, Seoul, Beijing, Moscow and Washington have become venues of intense diplomatic activity. Russia dispatched as its envoy Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov. He is pushing a comprehensive "package plan" calling for security guarantees and the resumption of economic aid to North Korea in return for a commitment to keep the Korean peninsula nuclear-free. Moscow favours the creation of a North-East Asian multilateral security forum that would undermine Pyongyang's ability to play its neighbours against one another and would at the same time be perceived by the country as willing to engage and not isolate it. This sub-regional security dialogue is also favoured by nations like Japan, whose Defence Agency Chief recently mooted a proposal regarding the creation in Asia of a security structure with the participation of Japan, Russia, the U.S., China, South Korea and North Korea.

Rouben Azizian, a former member of the Soviet and Russian diplomatic service and currently Associate Professor with the Asia-Pacific Centre for Security Studies, noted: "It is obvious that the Bush administration would prefer not to confront both Iraq and North Korea simultaneously. The North Korean challenge presents therefore a historic opportunity to rethink the earlier approaches to security in North-East Asia. While Washington is likely to be preoccupied with Iraq in the next few months, it could share the responsibility of dealing with North Korea with regional powers by blessing the formation of a North-East Asian multilateral security forum initially convened in the context of the Korean settlement."

The Russian game plan necessarily involves bringing North Korea back into the NPT fold and freezing its nuclear programme, thus reverting to the 1994 Agreed Framework status. Simultaneously, Russia seeks to ease North Korean security fears, especially vis-a-vis the U.S. Commentators assert that Losyukov may have offered Russia as a guarantator, possibly with China, of any security commitments being made by the U.S. to resolve the problem. Moreover, the Russian package also envisages facilitating the continuation of economic aid and other incentives to North Korea. It is chiefly this "package plan" that Moscow has tried to hard-sell through Losyukov in Beijing, Pyongyang and finally Washington. Russian Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov indicated that he was convinced that all interested parties wanted to settle the dispute. He said: "During the last few days, there have been encouraging statements that mean that the situation could be returned to as it was before North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty and the status quo could be restored." He stressed that Pyongyang should not be threatened and added that "the problem should be solved by political means without dictating to and pressuring North Korea".

Meanwhile, IAEA chief Mohammad El Baradei indicated in Moscow that Russia's plan could be a catalyst in resolving the crisis. He said that other countries were ready to help North Korea if it resumed compliance with the nuclear agreements. He said: "There is full readiness.... once North Korea comes into compliance to look favourably to North Korea's security concerns, North Korea's economic concerns."

China has offered to host talks between the U.S. and North Korea. Chinese state media recently quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing as telling James Kelly that China was ready to "work with all relevant parties to find a peaceful solution to the nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula". Even as it reiterated its support for a diplomatic solution to the Korean crisis, it seems Beijing is following its own agenda. It is still not clear whether China would seriously pressure North Korea. Analysts believe that several members of the Chinese leadership had tied any pressure from Beijing on Pyongyang to Washington's willingness to help rein in the pro-independence movement in Taiwan. In its report on the Li Zhaoxing-Kelly meeting, the official Xinhua news agency of China gave equal importance to the Taiwan and Korean issues. Li Zhaoxing was recently quoted as saying that "the adequate handling of the Taiwan question is the key to guaranteeing the healthy development of Sino-American relations".

Thus, the thrust of the U.S. strategy vis-a-vis North Korea seems to be "containment" rather than military confrontation. The role of Russian and Chinese diplomacy and the cooperation of neighbouring countries such as South Korea and Japan become important for the success of this policy. The question of the hour is how effective is the influence of Moscow and Beijing on Pyongyang. Currently Moscow may have a slight edge over Beijing visa-vis proximity to Pyongyang, despite the fact that ties between Moscow and Pyongyang had cooled off in the 1990s.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has already made three trips to Pyongyang. However, Moscow-based analysts feel that currently Russia has very limited influence over North Korea, mainly because Russia's economic situation is poor and the latter needs massive doses of economic assistance. However, Russia does have some huge multinational economic projects in the pipeline, such as the Trans-Siberian Railway and the Trans-Korean Railway. Thus its current trading prospects coupled with its relationship with Pyongyang, do give it some leverage.

On the other hand, analysts feel that Pyongyang has sufficient reason to be suspicious of Beijing's intervention. The suspicions might be based on the latter's diplomatic recognition of its principal enemy, Seoul, in 1992 and subtle backing over the past year to some U.S. foreign policy moves. However, being the country's major supplier of food and energy, China does have direct economic leverage over North Korea. There is also the precedent of a successful Chinese intervention in 1994, when tension peaked over North Korea's nuclear ambitions. The United Nations had threatened the imposition of sanctions on North Korea even as China urged caution and refused to support the move. The tide changed in June 1994. An article in the newspaper Ta Kung Pao hinted at a change in the Chinese position. It said that in the event of an embargo China would halt food and oil supplies to North Korea and completely cut off border trade. Following this, Pyongyang softened its earlier position and invited former U.S. President Jimmy Carter on a visit, which resulted in the 1994 agreement. Hence it is not surprising that currently, in the face of a nuclear resurgence in North Korea, the U.S. has invited Russia and China to help broker a solution.

Yet another party involved in the diplomatic parleys is South Korea It has proposed four days of Cabinet-level talks between North Korea and South Korea in January. These talks are aimed at resolving the issue of North Korean nuclearisation and pushing a proposal for reconciliation between the two Koreas. South Korea's president-elect Roh Moo-Hyun has repeatedly urged the U.S. to initiate talks with Pyongyang. South Korea has maintained that there is no need to worry much about the nuclear issue. Instead, the issue that really needs to be resolved is one of aid to the country's economy and energy sector. Roh Moo-Hyun said: "I think North Korea is sincere about its willingness to open up and reform, because it has no other choice. So if we persistently talk to the North, it will eventually give up its nuclear programme and look for assurance of its security and also economic aid." There is agreement among its neighbours that North Korea's main problems are economic and energy-related.

Currently, North Korea is in the grip of a massive humanitarian crisis, with up to eight million people likely to face starvation in the near future. The energy situation is pathetic. North Korea justifies its nuclearisation as a desperate move prodded by the U.S. step to withhold crucial fuel shipments. Maurice Strong, Special Envoy of U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan, said: "I do think that North Korea does have a very strong view of its position. It feels it has been unjustly treated, unjustly accused of abrogating a treaty which, it says, and I am making no value judgment myself, was first abrogated by the United States." However, experts feel that the current North Korean belligerence is merely a tactic to draw the attention of and get economic incentives from the U.S. However, the bottom-line remains that if sanctions are applied, millions could starve.

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