Tue, 24 Jun 2003

Russia can mediate in North Korea issue

Georgy Bulychev, Center of Modern Korean Studies, Institute of the Global Economy and International Relations, Russian Academy of Sciences, RIA Novosti

The Korean Peninsula situation doesn't seem to be very dynamic in the context of Mideastern developments. However, this situation is bound to change considerably some time from now; Moscow perceives these changes as something important.

Meanwhile the U.S. is once again trying to exclude Russia from the decision-making process (as regards those specific issues, which directly concern Moscow).

Moscow and Washington are voicing similar positions on the North Korean issue. This is proved by the recent conversation between Presidents Vladimir Putin and George Bush Jr. in St. Petersburg.

That conversation highlights their intention to cooperate; such cooperation would hinge on the rejection of North Korea's nuclear program and statements to the effect that a peaceful solution is essential. Chinese leader Hu Jintao attended the G8's Evian summit, informing the U.S. leader about Pyongyang's consent to take part in multilateral talks. However, North Korean-U.S. official conferences must be organized for this purpose.

The U.S., Japan and South Korea discussed the North Korean nuclear program in Honolulu the other day, subsequently deciding to press for multilateral talks, which would involve five countries alone, i.e. North Korea, the United States, China, Japan and South Korea.

One gets the impression that Washington wants to conduct such dialog, while exerting pressure on Pyongyang. Quite possibly, the White House Administration believes that Moscow, which doesn't want to collectively pressure North Korea, should thus be barred from discussing Korean affairs. Moreover, this tactical ploy would teach Russia a lesson for its stand on Iraq.

Still this position hardly tallies with U.S. interests. Moscow is sure that no deal can be struck with North Korea, unless Russia joins in. This has already happened throughout the 1990s.

The infamous end of the 1994 U.S.-North Korean framework agreement on freezing Pyongyang's nuclear program in exchange for normalized relations, as well as those abortive U.S.-North Korean-South Korean-Chinese talks (in line with the two-plus-two format), should be mentioned here.

It is Russia, which lacks any selfish interests on the Korean Peninsula, and which, as Pyongyang believes, has a unique political capital (due to those trusting relations between Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-Il), can act as an unbiased arbiter, thus facilitating a just and long-lasting solution.

It seems that the North Korean proposal, which was handed over to the U.S. side during the first round of talks in Beijing this past April, hinges on Moscow's January 2003 initiatives stipulating a package solution.

In other words, North Korea would exchange its non-nuclear status for security guarantees. Surely enough, this doesn't mean that Russia will be shouting for North Korea together with some other "cheer-leader" countries. However, chances for the successful outcome of the negotiating process would increase because Pyongyang won't feel cornered.

Supposing the U.S. wants to exclude Moscow from this dialog. However, this would entail a rather gloomy scenario for the Korean Peninsula. You see, it's still unclear whether Washington will eventually decide to "crush" North Korea or to mend its relations with that country.

Japan and South Korea, which are being pressured by the U.S., seem inclined to implement an even tougher policy with regard to Pyongyang. At the same time, they don't want to face the simple fact that all this can lead to war. Both countries are allowing U.S. war hawks to convince themselves that the Pyongyang regime will safely crumble all by itself.

However, Moscow is sure that this process won't be something painless. Russia must now defend something even more important than just a place at the negotiating table (that would confirm its great power status). These talks must aim to forge a real- life compromise solution; moreover, they must be prevented from turning into a diplomatic cover-up for preparations to wreck North Korean statehood.

The North Korean regime's demise would be fraught with dangerous and unpredictable consequences for neighboring countries, first and foremost. It would be pretty hard to prevent a negative regional scenario without Russian involvement.