The negotiations intended to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear arms have all but collapsed and the finger-pointing to affix blame is under way.
At the same time, the conventional wisdom says the issue has been passed to US president-elect Barack Obama to resolve after he takes office on Jan. 20. Nowhere is it carved in stone, however, that he need do so. Walking away is a realistic option.
Cutting through the diplomatic verbiage enveloping what is known as the Six Party Talks, there’s enough fault to go around:
• North Korea has no intention of giving up its nuclear program, has tested a weapon, and has indicated that it plans to test again. Pyongyang’s purpose has been to string out the negotiations to see what it could get in oil and other economic bribes.
• China, praised for hosting the talks, has done little to press North Korea. Rather, Beijing has allowed the talks to muddle along while claiming that China has little influence over North Korea. That contention from a rising power is increasingly hard to believe.
• The US has negotiated as if North Korea were governed by rational people susceptible to Western logic. Instead, the North Koreans have scorned US pledges of diplomatic recognition, economic benefits and a peace treaty to replace the truce that ended the Korean War of 1950 to 1953.
• South Korea, no matter what government is in power, has been lukewarm toward the talks because (a) a large majority believes that their North Korean cousins will not use nuclear weapons against them and (b) reunification would mean the South would inherit the North’s weapons.
• Japan, although anxious about North Korean belligerence, nuclear weapons and missiles, has been hampered by weak governments and an obsession with North Korean abductions of Japanese snatched from their homeland.
• Russia, a patron of North Korea in the days of the Soviet Union, has been trying to reestablish itself as an Asian power by cleaning up its rusting navy, promoting arms sales and fostering trade and economic aid. So far, however, that has not translated into political influence.
US President George W. Bush held out hope last week that the Six Party Talks could be revived. While flying from Iraq to Afghanistan, he told reporters: “A success of this administration is to put a framework in place that has China, the United States, and South Korea and Russia and Japan all at the table, all saying the same thing.”
The president asserted that the process of the negotiations had been reversed.
“It used to be, we will give you what you ask for and hope that you respond,” he said. “Now it is, here’s what you must do if you want our help,” adding that North Korea leader Kim Jong-il “is trying to test the process.”
Bush acknowledged, however, that the Six Party Talks are over for his administration and would be passed to Obama.
“The key,” the president said, “is to be firm and patient with a structure that will enable the next President or the next President after that to be able to solve the problem diplomatically.”
Obama has been cagey about North Korea’s nuclear weapons, perhaps to avoid responsibility before he moves into the White House. He says on his Web site, www.change.gov, that “the gravest danger to the American people is the threat of a terrorist attack with a nuclear weapon and the spread of nuclear weapons to dangerous regimes.”