Beijing and beyond

Published : May 23, 2003 00:00 IST

With the strategic stalemate in the U.S.-North Korea equation acquiring complex proportions, the role of China as a peace-maker assumes increased importance.

in Singapore

CHINA believes that "a good beginning" was made at the latest "tripartite talks", which concluded in Beijing on April 25, on the North Korean nuclear question. As the diplomatic prime mover and host to the three-day meeting that brought the United States and North Korea to the negotiating table, China has begun to talk in terms of the possibility of a "Beijing process" of diplomacy taking shape. The objective, of course, is to resolve the issues arising out of the U.S. perception that North Korea, or Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK), is still trying to develop nuclear weapons.

However, the question that still needs to be answered is whether the DPRK already possesses an atom bomb. At one level, U.S. officials, from President George W. Bush downwards, have been less than categorical about what the DPRK delegate, Ri Gun, had actually told his U.S. interlocutor, Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, during the Beijing parleys. At another level, the U.S. has made it abundantly clear that Ri Gun left his U.S. counterpart in no doubt about a virtual reality that the DPRK had already produced or acquired a nuclear weapon. Although the U.S. tends to see the DPRK's bomb as a fait accompli, U.S. officials have taken sufficient care to underline that any such nuclear device remains untested. According to the U.S., North Korea has tested ballistic missiles that can deliver nuclear weapons, but not a bomb itself.

Apparently, there is no consensus among the parties concerned on the exact course that the talks, held in camera, took. Asked specifically about the U.S. view of North Korea's self-portrayal as a state with an atom bomb, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Liu Jianchao said in Beijing on April 29 that the DPRK had not said during the talks that it already possessed a nuclear weapon. However, the diplomatic mystery was deepened by the fact that the Chinese spokesperson prefaced his statement with a cautious note to indicate that the position spelt out was entirely "according to what I know".

Speculation is rife in Asia-Pacific diplomatic circles that Ri Gun actually took Kelly into confidence on a social occasion, perhaps over breakfast, and not during the parleys. The DPRK, on its part, is watching the diplomatic speculation unfold without turning the spotlight on what Ri Gun intended to convey to the U.S. delegation.

On the other hand, the Kim Jong Il government refused to divulge details about its nuclear status to a Cabinet-level delegation from South Korea, which was in Pyongyang for a four-day discussion from April 27. The South Korean delegation was told that the DPRK's nuclear status was a matter of privileged confidentiality between it and the U.S. The issues at stake go far beyond the DPRK's sense of self-importance or South Korea's desire to keep the former within certain strategic bounds.

As the inter-Korean talks, the 10th in a series of Cabinet-level discussions since mid-2000, ended in Pyongyang on April 30, the South Korean side announced that the DPRK had agreed to resolve the nuclear issue by peaceful means. However, according to South Korea, the DPRK wanted a guarantee from the U.S. that the communist system in the North would be allowed to survive and flourish. On a separate but related plane, the DPRK indicated that any U.S.-sponsored move to impose sanctions on Pyongyang would be regarded as a hostile act.

More important, the DPRK sees itself as a besieged state in quest of security against a U.S. "threat" to launch a "pre-emptive nuclear strike". This aspect of the DPRK's strategic thinking underpins its stand on the nuclear question.

Not unaware of Pyongyang's calculations and compulsions, the U.S. firmed up its assessment of the Beijing talks, though very narrowly defined, by the International Labour Day. The Bush administration indicated that it would not turn its back on North Korea in the light of the latter's nuclear confessions. The sub-text is that Washington maintains that the DPRK has broken its commitments under the (discriminatory) Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which places the designated nuclear "haves", headed by the U.S., in a unique category of their own. According to the U.S., the DPRK's other sin is that it violated the bilateral accord of 1994. Under the 1994 pact, the DPRK is reckoned to have given up its sovereign right to produce or acquire nuclear weapons under any circumstance.

The counter-argument from the DPRK is that its current nuclear status cannot be judged against the dos and don'ts of the NPT. The basic reasoning is that Pyongyang gave up its adherence to the NPT in the course of a chain of events that began with James Kelly's assertion in October 2002 that DPRK interlocutors had told him that their country was trying to produce nuclear weapons by enriching uranium. It was in such a specific context that the U.S. intelligence community broke the "news" that Pakistan was helping North Korea in enriching uranium. The "story" of such magnitude led one of the DPRK's neighbours, Japan, to speak for the first time about Tokyo's own "option" of producing or acquiring nuclear weapons and dismissing the "option" in the same breath for a variety of reasons.

IT is in this context of Japan's nervousness over the DPRK's nuclear aims, no less than South Korea's ethnic-strategic concerns about Pyongyang, that the U.S. reiterated after the Beijing talks that the "trilateral" format of the talks should be enlarged to include Seoul and Tokyo. Given the continuing strategic relations between Pyongyang and the post-Soviet Kremlin (not necessarily on account of the Soviet Union's links with Kim Il Sung's North Korea), the U.S. is also considering the possible participation of Russia in the talks. In fact, the U.S. even now describes the "tripartite" parleys as a "multilateral" exercise.

On the topics for discussion at future talks, the U.S. line is going to be that it would first study and analyse all that has been said by the North Korean delegation at the Beijing talks. Without specifying the details, the U.S. has said that North Korea has a long wish-list and that the central issue of de-nuclearising it through "peaceful" and "diplomatic" means should be addressed regardless of what might have been said at the current stage about the Kim Jong Il "regime's" possession of an untested nuclear weapon.

Given the U.S.' persistent characterisation of the DPRK as a "reckless proliferator" and as a key component of the "axis of evil", the U.S. has certainly toned down its public pronouncements about the latter following the Beijing talks. Some segments of the Asia-Pacific diplomatic circles think that the U.S. would like to embark on another strategic or military adventure only after assessing and consolidating the "gains" of the Iraq war. However, the U.S. has asserted that it has "no intention" of launching a military strike against the DPRK.

If the U.S. does not want to enter into a "non-aggression pact" with the DPRK as suggested by Pyongyang, the obvious reason is that it does not see any strategic or moral equivalence between itself and the North Korean state. Reinforcing the U.S.' perceptions in this regard are the views of both South Korea and Japan that the DPRK is virtually a "failed state" that has been made more dangerous by its access to the nuclear-weapons technologies and possession of the ballistic missile capability. The DPRK's links with countries like Pakistan as a supplier of missiles, based on "evidence" available to the U.S. intelligence community, also figure in the overall strategic calculus of Washington and its "good friends and allies" in East Asia.

As for the question of the DPRK's `critical mass' capabilities to hold tested nuclear weapons in its arsenal, the U.S. has clarified that it will not "reward" or yield "concessions" to the former even if it were to agree to scrap its nuclear weapons programme in a "verifiable" and "irreversible" manner. The U.S.' argument is that the DPRK had twice in the past agreed to desist from making or acquiring nuclear weapons. The two occasions relate to the DPRK's accession to the NPT and its willingness to forgo the nuclear option as part of the 1994 Agreed Framework between it and the U.S.

With the strategic stalemate in the U.S.-DPRK equation acquiring complex proportions, the role of China as the peace-maker assumes importance. In one sense, the DPRK's acquisition of nuclear weapons might suit China's strategic interests if such a development were to keep Japan and South Korea in check. However, given the inevitable U.S. intervention on the East Asian scene, in the specific context of the political interests of Japan and South Korea, China's advocacy of a "de-nuclearised" Korean peninsula has a resonance of much diplomatic logic and strategic sense. Hence the significant question in this context is how the U.S. will treat China.

Of relevance to the current situation is an anecdotal comment by Patrick Tyler, the author of A Great Wall or the "investigative history" of how six U.S. Presidents, from Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton, engaged China over time. The anecdotal scene is set in the "living room" of the U.S. Ambassador to China, J. Stapleton Roy, in Beijing on May 19, 1995. Addressing the Beijing press corps, Roy was reported to have said that "at a time when we (the Americans) need strategic cooperation (with China) on North Korea, we're in a trade war with Japan and we may permit Lee Teng-hui (of Taiwan) to visit the United States". Roy added that "we are talking about theatre missile defences (for Asia) which raise questions of what our long-term views of China are". He said: "Where are the Chinese left... in assessing whether the U.S. has a foreign policy?" The words of Roy remain relevant to this day.

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