Eluding consensus

Published : Sep 26, 2003 00:00 IST

The United States and North Korea fail to reach an understanding during the August phase of the ongoing Beijing process of multilateral talks to resolve the Korean nuclear crisis.

in Singapore

STRATEGIC `encirclement' is the name of the current game plan of the United States to try and dispossess the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) of its capabilities to make and deploy weapons of mass destruction, most notably nuclear arms. Sensing this, the DPRK sought to push the U.S. back to the basics soon after a multilateral round of talks on this sensitive issue ended in Beijing on August 29. By the first week of September, though, the U.S. was unable to do anything more than merely berate the Kim Jong-Il government in Pyongyang for its perceived tendency to indulge in "inflammatory" diplomacy.

The furore generated during the high-voltage parleys, the first such exercise in multilateral diplomacy on a delicate nuclear arms issue in the unsettled post-Cold War era, cannot eclipse the complicated issues that have remained unresolved after just three days of combative talks. Surely, no quick-fix solution was anticipated before the difficult dialogue began, and not even a formal joint communique was issued at the end of the conference. To look for a tangible result after only one round of such complex talks, held in camera, is to read the progress card upside down. Not surprisingly, therefore, the overall `sense' of the discussions, summed up by China in its capacity as the host, was that the participants were, by and large, willing to consider keeping this new dialogue process going. The dates and venue for the next round are likely to be decided upon in due course.

Besides the U.S. and the DPRK, the two principal antagonists in this `nuclear crisis', the other participants were China, not only the proactive host but also the key interpreter of the mood and methods of these two adversaries, and South Korea, Russia and Japan, the three other countries with vital stakes in the stability of the Korean peninsula. - .

For the DPRK, which had been insultingly placed by the U.S. nearly two years ago in the so-called "axis of evil" category, the nuclear question did not seem to be more substantive than a mere bilateral dispute with Washington. Angry, though, over the label of `evil', the DPRK did not quite see its own sovereign right to defend itself, in the event of a "pre-emptive nuclear strike" by the U.S. in the present circumstances, as any morality play of the strategic kind in the emerging post-modern era in global politics.

Yet, in Pyongyang's perspective, the crux of the current dispute related to the strategic environment in which the U.S.-DPRK Agreed Framework (AF) of 1994 had unravelled, most precipitously in the past year or so. The AF was essentially a U.S. stratagem to prevent the DPRK from crossing the so-called "red line" on the path towards the status of a state with nuclear weapons. Acts of alleged omission and commission, concerning either the U.S. or the DPRK, were to account for the virtual collapse of the AF. It was this aspect that drove the DPRK to insist on keeping the issue on a U.S.-specific bilateral track. The only other factor that the DPRK considered important, ahead of the August talks, was the strategic relevance of China as an unspecified, but duly recognised, interpreter of the Korean nuclear question in the triangular context that inevitably involved Washington too.

The three countries - China, the U.S. and the DPRK - had in fact held a round of talks in Beijing in April this year. That meeting, which concluded on a dramatic note as the chief delegates of the three countries clasped their hands in a show of seriousness of purpose, was convened by China in a bid to defuse an escalating confrontation between the other two. With China firmly committing itself to working for the goal of a non-nuclearised Korean peninsula, the stage was then set for a further exploration of diplomatic means to end the U.S.-DPRK row.

In Beijing's calculus, the Korean peninsula could not be allowed to become a theatre of a major post-Cold War brinkmanship, a military one involving either the U.S. or the DPRK or indeed both. Any such new confrontation, although linked to "an end-game of the Cold War" itself as generally seen in the West, would indeed be related to Washington's evolving post-Cold War agenda, inclusive of `non-proliferation'. Given such realities, China had by April this year decided, gradually but firmly, to play a critical role in helping the key players to come together for serious parleys.

The vision of the U.S. was obviously different but not incompatible with China's priorities. Prior to the April meeting itself, Washington's "stealth imperialism" in Asia, was beginning to become more transparent. The DPRK seized upon the new U.S. doctrine of "pre-emptive strikes" to raise the nuclear stakes on the Korean peninsula. That, in turn, gave Washington a chance to insist on multilateral talks to resolve the Korean nuclear `problem'. So, even as the U.S. participated in the trilateral meeting in Beijing in April, the Bush administration made it abundantly clear that the way to move forward would be multilateral talks. It was against this background that China succeeded in convening the latest meeting.

Between April and August, the U.S.' discomfiture and sense of isolation over Iraq's occupation became incrementally acute. While this reinforced the U.S. demand for multilateral talks on the Korean nuclear issue, Pyongyang began to intensify its articulation of opposition to this pluralism, which, in this case, was seen as no different from an attempt to encircle the DPRK in strategic and diplomatic terms. In different degrees and for varying reasons, all the countries on the scene were reckoned to be in favour of de-nuclearising the Korean peninsula, a largely diplomatic euphemism for the demand that the DPRK roll back and eliminate its nuclear-weapons `programme'. So viewed, multilateralism would give the U.S. the perceived advantages of not only trying to insulate itself from the `blowback' of a certain unilateralism, as seen in Iraq now, but also seek to subject the DPRK to some form of strategic siege on the nuclear issue.

If, in these circumstances, Beijing persuaded Pyongyang to participate in the August multilateral talks, the reasons were twofold. The leaders of China looked at ways to enhance the stability of their immediate neighbourhood at this time of acute uncertainties for global peace on account of the U.S.' overdrive in Iraq. Secondly, and no less importantly, China gave the DPRK something to fall back upon. In the event, with China's consistent articulation, the DPRK's own security concerns, almost entirely related to the U.S. itself, became a key agenda issue during the August talks.

A unique and visually unorthodox `handshake', involving the representatives of all the participating countries marked the brief `ceremonial' part of the inauguration of the talks. The delegations sat at a specially crafted hexagonal table, with the alphabetical seating arrangement lending itself to a certain proximity between chief U.S. delegate James Kelly and DPRK's chief representative Kim Yong-Il. Not only that. A definitive `contact', most certainly in the dialogue-mode, was established between Kim and Kelly on the margins of the main conference.

Within the main forum, China set the tone by characterising the meeting as a "new start", with the earlier April meeting now being expanded and carried forward. The idea was to emphasise that the August talks were not taking place in any kind of a strategic vacuum. During the conference, Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing made a significant intervention.

WITH the details of the actual discussions remaining largely undisclosed, diplomats and analysts in the Asia Pacific region drew attention to the signs of an emerging consensus on two key issues. The goal of a nuclear-weapons-free Korean peninsula, which would include the U.S.-linked South Korea too, was agreed upon as a principle, with the DPRK readjusting its sights on this `vision' on the basis of a parallel reality. Also broached upon, in this specific context, was the long-range principle about the need to address the DPRK's own security concerns, in the specific context of the "hostile policy" of the U.S.

Publicly summing up the outcome of the August talks, chief Chinese delegate Wang Yi said that "while some disagreement still remains", the meeting had "brought about progress" too. Noting that "future talks are not ensured to be always smooth", he said, "the six parties might find ways (of) peacefully solving the Korean nuclear issue... so long as we make concerted efforts". Wang outlined a broad, six-point agreement on the following lines: a collective willingness to resolve the nuclear issue through the peaceful means of dialogue; due consideration to the security concerns of the DPRK even while realising the objective of a nuclear-weapons-free Korean peninsula; a move to explore an overall plan to resolve the nuclear issue in a just and reasonable manner; the recognition of the need to avoid actions that might only aggravate the situation during the process of negotiations; the point that dialogue itself should continue to be used (as at present) to establish trust and expand the common ground among the participating countries; and, finally, a move to fix a specific date and venue for the next round of talks under what has now come to be known as the Beijing process.

Within hours of the detailed exposition by China, the DPRK dubbed the August talks a "useless" exercise even as Li and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell agreed that the latest parleys had been a "beneficial" process. Pyongyang even said that the six-party talks "reinforced the belief that we have no other option but to continue to strengthen (the) nuclear deterrent power as a self-defence measure that ensures sovereignty". Later, however, the DPRK too appeared reconciled to letting China carry the peace process forward.

Questions such as the feasibility of a U.S.-DPRK non-aggression pact to ease Pyongyang's security concerns have generated some new ideas, too. Michael O'Hanlon and Mike Mochizuki have proposed, in a study under the auspices of the Brookings Institution in the U.S., that "deep conventional arms reductions on the (Korean) peninsula and economic assistance to North Korea" could provide the centre-piece of an alternative to both the "coercion" approach and the route of diplomatic "engagement". The fact is that the idea of alternatives to the application of the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive force is catching on.

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