Talks may ease U.S.-South Korea friction
The Rising East
By Richard Halloran
The American diplomat who helped the Chinese persuade the North Koreans to return to the negotiations over Pyong-yang's nuclear ambitions had it exactly right: "I have not broken out the cigars and champagne quite yet."
The skepticism of Christopher Hill, assistant secretary of state responsible for East Asia, was quoted in The New York Times as he announced the resumption of the six-party talks. They include China, North Korea, the U.S., South Korea, Japan and Russia.
While Hill didn't say so, he seemed to have in mind North Korea's trail of obstruction, deception and bad-faith tactics. Perhaps he even doubted that, in the end, the North Koreans would come to Beijing this month or next to negotiate as promised.
North Korea's reluctance showed up in small clues. In Beijing, the Americans and Chinese announced North Korea's decision; the North Koreans were silent. The next day, the official (North) Korean Central News Agency carried only a short item saying: "The DPRK decided to return to the six-party talks on the premise that the issue of lifting financial sanctions" will be settled. DPRK is the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea, the country's official name.
In the same edition, KCNA let loose several blasts at the U.S., one of which claimed that: "The present development clearly testifies to the justice of the decision made by the DPRK to have access to nuclear weapons."
Speculation about why North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, suddenly agreed to resume the talks after a year of refusal ranged widely. Most likely, the North Koreans sought to buy time to work on their nuclear weapons as the test detonation earlier this month may have shown a flaw.
Said a Korea-watcher: 'The North Korean political leadership was faced with the problem of being unable (despite its high-pitched rhetoric) to conduct another test for some time until that technical issue was resolved."
Kim Jong Il may also have sought to get the Chinese off his back as they had cut off his oil to force him to return to the talks. Beijing had taken the initiative in arranging the negotiations and had lost face when North Korea was defiant.
It is possible that Kim Jong Il thinks he is in a better bargaining position now, that the sanctions imposed by the United Nations had hurt, and that he does, indeed, hope to have lifted the financial sanctions imposed by the U.S.
The renewal of the six-party talks may slightly ease the friction between South Korea and the U.S. Among the causes of that have been disagreements between President Roh Moo-hyun and President Bush over North Korea. Roh advocates accommodating North Korea, which some in Washington see as appeasing a member of Bush's "axis of evil."
A delegation of retired senior South Korean military officers came to Honolulu recently to suggest that the vocal anti-Americanism led by Roh had endangered their alliance with the U.S.
The Koreans especially sought to prevent further withdrawal of U.S. military forces from the peninsula beyond those already in motion. The U.S. has 29,000 troops there today and plans to drop that to 25,000 in 2008.
The Korean appeal, however, may have been too late. Roh has given no sign that he will relent before he leaves office in 2008. Likewise, the Bush administration seems to have lost interest in South Korea. Thus U.S. forces will continue to leave.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has said those troops are needed elsewhere, such as Iraq, and South Korean forces are strong enough to repel an attack from North Korea. Moreover, U.S officers in Seoul point to difficulties in resolving issues surrounding bases and training sites.
The delegation from the Korea Research of Military Affairs met with American specialists on Korea gathered by the Pacific Forum, the think tank here. To encourage candor, the rules of meeting precluded speakers from being identified.
A Korean quickly set the tone: "The current ROK-U.S. alliance is in crisis." The growth of Korean democracy, with its freedom of dissent, and economic expansion contributed to Korean "self-confidence and nationalistic pride," he said. He noted a 2004 survey of young Koreans found that a majority saw Kim Jong Il and George Bush as equal threats to peace.
When the Americans asked what South Korea would do to steady the alliance, however, the South Koreans answered with generalities, such as proposing a blueprint for the 21st century, or with silence.
Richard Halloran is a Honolulu-based journalist and former New York Times correspondent in Asia. His column appears weekly in Sunday's Focus section.