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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 22, 2004

N. Korea should be given ultimatum

By Richard Halloran

When American, Chinese, Japanese, South Korean and Russian diplomats sit down with the North Koreans in Beijing on Wednesday, they might want to consider how the North Koreans have become almost irrelevant and should be ignored.

North Koreans in Pyongyang rallied to support the country's withdrawal from the global nuclear treaty last year. As the Six Party Talks resume this week, nations may want to consider North Korea's relevance.

Associated Press library photo

Supposedly, the Beijing meeting is to be a resumption of the Six Party Talks intended to persuade the North Koreans to abandon their ambitions to acquire nuclear weapons. In exchange, Pyongyang would get aid for its devastated economy, diplomatic recognition by the United States and Japan, reconciliation with South Korea, and a multinational security guarantee.

In reality, the North Koreans have no intention of giving up their nuclear programs and the negotiations will undoubtedly prove futile. (Indeed, one should be careful in writing that a meeting with the North Koreans will take place, as they have been known not to show up, with no explanation, or to walk out before the meeting is over.)

Even so, the Six Party gathering, perhaps better labeled the Five Party Conference, has taken on a constructive subtext about forging a "security architecture" for northeastern Asia that reflects an evolving balance of power there.

Long range, such a security arrangement, even if informal, might be useful in helping to resolve potential conflicts. Among them would be a possible rivalry between China and Japan, disputes between China and Russia over Chinese migration into Siberia, and the historical animosity between Korea and Japan.

Today, northeastern Asia is the site of crisscrossing bilateral ties — the separate U.S. security treaties with Japan and South Korea, Chinese and Russian agreements with South Korea, Chinese and Russian ties with each other, and practical agreements between the United States, China and Russia. No multinational order pulls these together.

In this untidy formation, the United States has begun disengaging from the Korean Peninsula, preparing to move its military headquarters out of Seoul and its troops away from the border with North Korea to give them a regional mission. Plans call for dismantling the United Nations Command, the Eighth Army Headquarters and other military institutions in coming years.

For China, the talks on North Korea mark the first time in the 55-year history of the People's Republic that the Chinese have taken the lead in a difficult multinational negotiation. The talks have become an emblem of China's revival as the influential Middle Kingdom.

Japan, for the first time since the end of World War II, has begun to accept responsibility in the international arena and the risks that go with it, having deployed soldiers to Iraq to help rebuild that nation.

South Korea, which is fully capable of defending itself against North Korea, is feeling a new surge of nationalism and has become more assertive in diplomacy.

Russia is anxious to regain its place as a power in Asia despite its weakened economy, military deterioration and political uncertainty.

For all five, the prospect of a nuclear-armed North Korea is a thorn in the side and a distraction but hardly a critical issue. Even for Japan, which perhaps feels more threatened by North Korea than the others, it is not an overriding issue. Japanese become more irate these days over the abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korean secret agents.

In recent months, the United States and North Korea, the two main protagonists on the nuclear issue, have communicated through embassies at the U.N. in New York and in Beijing, through speeches by their respective leaders in Pyongyang and Washington, and through leaks to the press in Washington and pronouncements in the official press in Pyongyang.

Consequently, the positions of each are known and have hardened into a stalemate, and there seems little point to continuing to negotiate.

Washington is not prepared to concede to Pyongyang and for the moment is not contemplating military action, particularly not while U.S. forces are bogged down in Iraq and stretched thin elsewhere.

Thus, the American negotiators in Beijing may want to look the North Koreans in the eye and say: "We have had enough of your brinkmanship and failure to negotiate in good faith. We are acutely aware of your lying, deception and dissembling in the past. When you're ready for genuine negotiations, call me at this telephone number.

"And just so there is no misunderstanding, a nuclear or any other threat to our allies in South Korea or Japan will draw swift and overwhelming retribution at a time and place and in a manner of our choosing. Have a nice day."

Richard Halloran is a former New York Times correspondent in Asia.