North Korea policy heats up White House race
By P Parameswaran
‘The Bush approach is not a good strategy because he’s focussing on just the nuclear weapons. The North Koreans are not going to give those up unless they get something in return that’s pretty good’
White House aspirant John Kerry’s plan to hold direct talks with North Korea to end its nuclear weapons drive may turn up the heat on President George W Bush and force him to revamp his policy toward the Stalinist state if re-elected, analysts say.
Kerry pledged during the first televised presidential debate last week that if he won the November 2 vote, he would seek a no-holds barred bilateral dialogue with Pyongyang, not only on the nuclear question but the equally sensitive human rights issue as well.
His plan to directly engage North Korea is seen by analysts as more pragmatic compared to Bush’s current policy of having multilateral negotiations with Pyongyang confined purely on the nuclear issue. After about a year and three rounds of talks, the six-party forum hosted by China and also involving the United States, the two Koreas, Japan and Russia has hit a stalemate, with North Korea refusing to return to the negotiating table and instead vowing to step up its nuclear drive.
“There is no question that Kerry’s approach would hasten the solution of the problem as bilateral negotiations could provide a framework for getting into some of those underlying issues critical to solving the crisis,” said James Moltz, deputy director of the centre for non-proliferation studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. But if Bush is re-elected, Kerry is trailing in opinion polls, the incumbent could come under pressure to change his hard-line North Korean policy, Moltz said, citing Pyongyang’s ballooning nuclear threat and new uncertainties introduced by South Korea’s own nuclear ambitions.
Bush is against official talks with North Korea, saying the five nation coalition engaging North Korea under the six-party talks has been effective and that “China’s leverage on Kim Jong-Il” was imperative. The Bush administration had scrapped a 1994 bilateral nuclear accord with North Korea after it allegedly pursued an atomic weapons programme.
Kerry wants to continue consultations with North Korea’s neighbours while Washington puts all contentious bilateral issues on the table with Pyongyang.
They would cover nuclear, human rights, economic, artillery disposal and demilitarised zone issues as well as a 1953 armistice signed by the United States, North Korea and China.
The treaty ended the Korean War but failed to bring permanent peace to the Korean peninsula. More than 50,000 US soldiers died in the war, sparked by North Korea’s invasion of its southern neighbour.
“The Bush approach is not a good strategy because he’s focussing on just the nuclear weapons. The North Koreans are not going to give those up unless they get something in return that’s pretty good,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
“But you also can’t buy out those weapons. So the only solution is broaden the discussions, as Kerry has proposed, to a wider set of topics,” O’Hanlon said, citing the US strategy which wooed Vietnam to embrace reforms in return for economic aid and diplomatic recognition. North Korea “obviously would prefer that Kerry wins,” he said.
The current six-party talks are at a stalemate largely because the Bush administration is not flexible with its aid-for-disarmament plan. At the last round of talks in June, the United States offered Pyongyang three months to shut down and seal its nuclear weapons facilities in return for economic and diplomatic rewards and multilateral security guarantees.
North Korea refused the offer, saying it lacked sincerity. It was the first significant overture since Bush took office in early 2001 and branded it part of an “axis of evil” alongside Iran and pre-war Iraq.
Instead of waiting for three months, Pyongyang wanted the United States to match the nuclear freeze with instant energy aid, removal from the list of states sponsoring terrorism and lifting of economic sanctions. The United States refused to budge and its stand was perceived by North Korea as defying the ‘words for words’ and ‘action for action’ spirit agreed upon at the last round of the six-party talks.
Fred Carriere, executive director of The Korea Society, said the Bush administration’s ineffective North Korean policy boiled down to its failure to win the trust of the North Koreans. “The idea that within the larger context, the two parties (US and North Korea) whose interest is most at issue would not engage in direct one-on-one talks defies centuries of diplomatic practice and the idea of just using sticks and no incentives also defies centuries of diplomatic practice,” he said. afp