Talks on North Korea's nuclear program: Opportunity and obstacle

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South Korea could be an obstacle to solving the North Korean nuclear problem, even though the U.S. and North Korean deputy foreign ministers say they are satisfied with the results of their recent meeting.

South Korea could be an obstacle to solving the North Korean nuclear problem, even though the U.S. and North Korean deputy foreign ministers say they are satisfied with the results of their recent meeting.

What can be done, if anything?

The New York talks between North Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan and Stephen Bosworth, Washington's special representative for North Korea policy, lasted two days. The officials discussed ways to resume the six-party talks among North Korea, South Korea, the United States, Russia, Japan, and China, the organizer of these talks, which began in 2003 and were suspended in late 2008.

Many doubts have been expressed about the usefulness of the six-party talks since their inception. Essentially, they were launched after a war of words broke out between the United States and North Korea when Washington accused Pyongyang of conducting secret military nuclear research in violation of their previous agreements. That bilateral dispute was later joined by intermediaries and concerned countries.

There was always a chance that the two main parties to the discussions would try to have a behind-the-scenes agreement, if only because the six-party talks have already greatly enhanced China and Russia's influence in the region.

When the United States first entered into talks on recognizing the People's Republic of China in 1971, China was much like North Korea is now. But they managed to come to an agreement. And North Korea has repeatedly hinted that there is shortcut to a comprehensive resolution - a separate agreement with the United States. Yet the talks in New York were about returning to the six-party format.

On July 24, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo in South China to discuss how to encourage North Korea to resume the talks where they left off in 2008, when North Korea was ready to pledge to stop its nuclear programs in return for aid and energy. Since then, North Korea has conducted two nuclear tests and announced the launching of a uranium program. There were many reasons why the talks collapsed; neither side is blameless. However, the main reason was that the negotiating partners mistrusted each other during George W. Bush's time in office.

Today it is clear that the Obama administration really wants to overcome the North Korean stalemate and is ready to strike a major deal. One of the reasons is the debt showdown in Washington that only just came to an end. Adding a conflict on the Korean peninsula, let alone a nuclear one, to the ongoing U.S. debt crisis is an unthinkable prospect for the Obama administration.

The previous round of the talks did not discuss the fate of nuclear weapons because North Korea did not have any. But now it does, and getting rid of them could be like trying to put toothpaste back into the tube.

In such complicated situations, there is a temptation to do nothing. But this is not a viable solution for the Korean peninsula, especially because sentiments in South Korea are changing rapidly, and this could cause more problems for the Obama administration than North Korea's refusal to budge on the nuclear problem.

The South Korean ultimatum

The North Korean foreign ministry said on Monday that it was ready to resume the six-party talks on its nuclear program, but South Korea could prove an obstacle to any progress.

According to the Washington Post, one U.S. expert, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that the preconditions demanded by South Korea set too high a bar. Seoul demands that Pyongyang must cease its nuclear activities and allow International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors back into the country before resuming the six-party talks. What point are the talks then if Pyongyang complies with this demand? Such preconditions are sure to kill any talks in the crib.

There were reports in the media before the talks in New York that soothing their South Korean allies was a greater challenge for U.S. diplomats than convincing the North Koreans to attend the talks. The reason is that South Korean attitudes toward their northern neighbors are more negative than ever before.

South Korean society is more or less evenly divided over whether to treat Pyongyang with kid gloves or an iron fist. There are minor fluctuations, of course. A soft approach was favored by a majority of South Koreans when the six-party talks began, whereas now the majority wants the South Korean government to take a hard line.

Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum CSIS think tank in Honolulu, writes in The Japan Times that "support for the U.S.-South Korea alliance has never seemed stronger in South Korea" and, worse still, that "a growing number of South Koreans, including many prominent politicians, are calling for the reintroduction of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea."

"An even larger number believe that the South should have its own independent nuclear weapons capability to match that of the North's," Cossa writes.

This is public opinion, not government policy. However, unlike its predecessors, the South Korean government under President Lee Myung-bak is already extremely anti-North Korean; bottom-up pressure could add fuel to the fire.

An arms race between North and South Korea is the last thing a cash-strapped United States needs. The Bush administration was too strident about regime change and the spread of democracy around the world, including North Korea. The Obama administration has had to pay the price, but it's unclear if it will be able to cope with this burdensome legacy.

The views expressed in this article are the author's and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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