The Risks of Direct Talks Between N.Korea and the U.S.

      June 18, 2009 12:48

      Presidents Lee Myung-back and Barack Obama agreed on a five-country framework that requires South Korea, the United States, China, Russia and Japan to meet first to discuss the North Korean nuclear impasse and one of them to negotiate with Pyongyang afterwards on their behalf. A South Korean official said the U.S. was likely to represent the five countries as long as there were no objections from the others. In the end, it means bilateral talks between Washington and Pyongyang.

      The U.S. and North Korea will not start talks immediately. At a press conference that followed the summit, Obama said there will be no repeat of the pattern of rewarding North Korea for its provocations. If North Korea continues to pose a threat, it would face tough sanctions, he said. Following UN Security Council Resolution 1874, the U.S. Navy has ordered its forces to search all suspicious North Korean ships.

      But Obama left open the possibility of a peaceful resolution to the nuclear crisis through talks, saying North Korea would be rewarded if it embarks on a road to peace and economic development and strives to win the recognition of the international community. The proposed method of the five countries who tackled the North Korean issue for the past five years coming up with a solution and then letting one of them deal directly with Pyongyang is a plan that would be put into effect if the situation enters a "negotiating stage."

      At a time when North Korea is willing to talk only with the U.S., direct talks between the two may be necessary. But we must remember that the U.S. is capable of changing its attitude at any time if it is in the national interest. During the first North Korean nuclear crisis back in the 1990s, the U.S.-South Korean alliance remained intact. But once the U.S. began direct talks with North Korea, South Korea ended up sidelined. When North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in 2006, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution and sought to implement it, but once Washington and Pyongyang began talks, the sanctions fizzled.

      This time, the leaders of the U.S. and South Korea vowed they would not repeat past mistakes. But such vows may lose strength once the U.S. and North Korea begin direct negotiations. The U.S. must not again be fooled by North Korea's negotiating strategy. And the five countries must take a unified stance and pressure North Korea in unison to ensure the success of a two-way meeting between Washington and Pyongyang. China's role is essential. If Washington-Pyongyang talks begin, nothing will be accomplished as long as China pushes all of the responsibilities on the U.S. and plays a passive role.

      U.S. pressure will increase if North Korea lashes out against UN-imposed sanctions, conducts a third nuclear test and fires an intercontinental ballistic missile. But so far in the saga of North Korea's nuclear standoff, talks always followed such provocations. It is easy for South Korea and the U.S. to maintain cooperation when the situation is stalled, but once that situation changes, that level of cooperation may be difficult to maintain.

      The government must come up with a carefully planned strategy not only in terms of sanctions against North Korea but for the next stage as well. It would be unacceptable if the U.S.-North Korean talks lead to nuclear arms reduction talks, with Washington virtually recognizing the communist country as a nuclear power.

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