Thu, 28 Aug 2003

Hopes are dim for the Beijing nuclear talks

Bantarto Bandoro, Editor, The Indonesian Quarterly, Centre For Strategic and International Studies (CSIS),

The international community now anticipates that the three-day Beijing talks on the North Korean nuclear crisis, starting on Wednesday would finally lead to genuine stability and security on the Korean Peninsula. The multilateral talks scheduled will be attended by the two Koreas, the U.S., Japan, China and Russia. Last April tripartite talks between China, the U.S. and North Korea did not produce much result.

North Korea's insistence has always been on bilateral talks between the U.S. and North Korea for a nonaggression treaty and diplomatic relations from the U.S. position has been to include countries relevant to the crisis in future talks.

The Beijing meeting is significant in itself as it is tasked with persuading the North Korean leaders not to go nuclear and pressing the U.S. to be more cooperative in providing assurance for the security of North Korea. The meeting is being held in a way to put U.S. assurances in writing.

North Korea's acquiescence to the six-party talks is largely the result of China's diplomatic efforts. Although Beijing had been initially cool to Washington's pleas to put more pressure on its neighbor and ally, it changed its attitude in recent months. China has become more active because of the seriousness and urgency of the North Korean problem. If the six-way peace talks don't handle the problem well enough, it could really result in an intensive war, because the signs there are already quite dangerous.

The meeting will likely focus more on how to change the political behavior of North Korea rather than on how to reverse the basic policy of the U.S. Actions by North Korea that satisfactorily address concern over its nuclear weapons program could open the door to a very new kind of relationship, certainly with the U.S. and with other countries in the region as well. Thus, the objective is to urge North Korea to commit to a completely verifiable and irreversible ending of its nuclear arms program through peaceful diplomatic resolution.

North Korea, originally resisting multilateral talks, now seems to be prepared to join the clamor for long-term peace on the peninsula. But the question is whether this can be achieved. Although the participation of North Korea might be sincere, it may actually fear that through such a meeting the others would gang up against it. Or perhaps it might be the expectation of the U.S. and its allies that North Korea be clobbered by other U.S. allies.

If the U.S. takes such a road against North Korea behind the curtain of dialog, for example without withdrawing its hostile policy toward North Korea, North Korea will certainly never give up its nuclear deterrent force. This would mean a continued nuclear stand off between the two countries. The U.S. and South Korean officials have already cautioned against expecting an early resolution, but allowing talks to drag on could give North Korea the time it needs to develop nuclear weapons.

What seems to be important from the Beijing meeting is the fact that the meeting takes place at a time when the international community has expressed its grave concern over the possibility of the use of nuclear weapons for the resolution of conflict. It is also to be hoped that the participation of countries who possess nuclear weapons, such as Russia, Japan, and the U.S. and China themselves, would give more political weight to the meeting, reflecting their genuine stand against the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

If the Beijing meeting is successful, then Moscow, Beijing, Tokyo and Washington must be prepared to adopt a common position that North Korean's nuclear weapons program be immediately halted. The end result of the Beijing meeting will also be determined by the extent to which Japan, the U.S. and South Korea manage their relations with China, because China is the country that can have the most influence on Pyongyang. It is therefore necessary for the U.S. and its allies to work with Beijing, and not undermine it.

There is reason to be pessimistic that the Beijing meeting would lead to North Korea's disarmament, if one carefully considers the basic standpoints of the participating countries, the U.S. and North Korea in particular. One observed that it is highly unlikely any agreement will be reached during the meeting. But the participation of China and Russia in the meeting is a hopeful sign. Moscow and Beijing might offer a security guarantee to North Korea in case the North Korean government is not satisfied with the U.S. response. Thus, the diplomatic task of Moscow, Beijing and to some extent also Tokyo and Seoul is actually to coax the U.S. so that whatever responses the U.S. might make does correspond with the current policy and standpoint of North Korea.

We must appreciate China's diplomatic initiatives in solving the nuclear stand off on the Korean Peninsula. The process is now beginning, though it is likely to be a long one. The participating countries in the nuclear talks believe that a diplomatic resolution has always been possible and whatever options they may have will remain on the table for further negotiation.

It has always been the interest of ASEAN to see a more stable and secure East Asia. Though ASEAN has not released any statement regarding the Beijing meeting, the end result of the meeting, if any, would hopefully correspond with the ASEAN position that the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula be solved through diplomatic process and that nuclear weapons be eliminated from national arsenals.

Long term security and stability in the East Asia region in particular after all is the main objective of all countries in the region, and it is only through diplomatic measures that such objectives can be achieved. It is important that we now see significant progress in the talks on the North Korea nuclear issue.