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US, China, Russia, Japan, South Korea Willing To Push On North Korean Nukes, But…

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on


North Korea's young leader, Kim Jong-un.

North Korea’s young leader, Kim Jong-un.

WASHINGTON: The US, Russia, and China — despite all their other differences — can agree on a basic approach to how to deal with North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. The bad news? That approach can’t work.

Despite disputes ranging from the Crimean peninsula to the Senkaku Islands, the US and its allies can still form a united front with Russia and China, said Amb. Glyn Davies, the State Department special representative for North Korean affairs. There’s just one problem, as became evident from Davies’ remarks last night. The only thing we all agree on is the only thing North Korea will never agree to: getting rid of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons.

“This new leader has done us the backhanded favor of making clear he has no intention of denuclearizing,” Amb. Davies admitted last night towards the beginning of a panel discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Less than 30 minutes later, though, Davies was falling back on the old formula of the so-called “six party” negotiations involving both Koreas, Japan, China, Russia, and the US, which broke down in December 2008. “We hope to create space to restart the six-party [talks],” he said. “It does depend on whether the North Koreans will make the right choice and moves back in the direction of the five parties’ position, which is that denuclearization… is the bedrock of the six-party process, the sine qua non of it.”

But what on earth can anyone offer Kim Jong-un that’s more valuable than his nukes, in terms of ensuring his personal survival and that of his dynasty? (We can safely assume the welfare of his people isn’t a compelling motive). That’s the question I asked Victor Cha, holder of the Korea Chair at CSIS and a veteran of Bush administration negotiations with the North.

“That’s clearly a problem now, because I think the predominant negotiating template in the past was that they’d be willing to trade at least some of their weapons,” Cha told me and other reporters after Amb. Davies’ remarks. But it’s become clear that, while Pyongyang might be willing someday to limit the size of its nuclear arsenal — once they feel it’s big enough — its existence is not a matter for negotiation.

“They want to have an arms control discussion,” Cha said, not a “denuclearization” one. “It’s ridiculous, [but] they want to be recognized as a nuclear weapons state…. The problem for people like Glyn is, that’s just not acceptable, so what do you do then?” Cha left the question hanging unanswered.

So what’s the plan? “The strategy is to ensure… as great [a] unanimity as we can achieve on what it is that North Korea must do,” Davies told the audience at CSIS. “We’ve made great progress on that,” he said, especially with China. Beijing has its own anxieties about instability in the region, Davies emphasized, which increasingly “converge” with US interests — and, though the ambassador didn’t say it, Beijing seems increasingly frustrated with its ally-cum-albatross in Pyongyang.

“The problem becomes working through what we like to call the road map, which is the how and when of North Korean denuclearization,” Davies went on, “and the truth is, no secret, that the interests of the five partners are not perfectly congruent. That’s just life.”

“Not perfectly congruent?” I asked the ambassador when it came time for questions. Since the six parties last officially agreed on anything, in July 2008 — just weeks before Russia invaded Georgia — two of our “partners,” Russia and China, have become international troublemakers themselves. China in particular has asserted rights over waters, islands, and airspace long claimed by Japan and South Korea, which in turn have bitter unfinished history with each other. How can we get Pyongyang to agree to out terms when we can’t agree among ourselves?

“You just helped describe the degree of difficulty here,” Davies responded, chuckling, “but there is one issue on which we all agree[:] the necessity of denuclearization.”

“Despite these regional differences that continue to bubble up and sometimes bubble over, we are still able to talk to Russia about North Korea, to talk to China about North Korea,” Davies said. “Despite the differences at the margins [!] we have in terms of our strategic interests, this can be done.”

Victor Cha told me after the panel that “I agree with you the strategic environment is much more complex than it was.”

You mean “worse,” I said.

“Yeah, worse,” Cha said. “But at the same time, the obstacle to getting back to six-party talks is not that Japan and Korea have history problems, or that China’s declaring an ADIZ [air defense identification zone], or that the Russians are in Crimea. The problem is North Korea.”

So can the five “partners,” democracies and dictatorships alike, really form a united front towards totalitarian North Korea? “I think we can,” Cha said. “History has shown that.”

As for practical steps, Cha told reporters he expected the US to call for tighter sanctions against North Korea in response to the horrifying findings of a recent UN human rights report. While he’s not sure how well it would actually work, he said, there’s plenty of room to tighten the vise. “You look at the sanctions that are on Iran and compare them to North Korea, there’s no comparison. Sanctions on Iran are much more comprehensive.”

Effective sanctions, of course, require cooperation from North Korea’s largest neighbor, China, which has both a North Korean refugee problem, major investments in North Korean minerals and a persistent desire to maintain as stable a regime next door as possible. Will China cooperate? “I don’t know,” Cha said frankly. The best chance to convince Beijing, he added, “would be if North Korea did a new type of nuclear test.”

That seems a strange, unhappy thing to hope for — but then North Korea is a strange, unhappy place.

What do you think?