Tuesday, September 2, 2003

North Korea startled an international conference in Beijing last week by declaring its intention to test a nuclear bomb. But the fact that representatives of China, Russia, Japan and South Korea were there to be startled, and North Korea was there to startle them, suggests there is a slim possibility North Korea can be persuaded to give up its nuclear program without a resort to force.

North Korea softened the bellicosity of its declaration on the second day of the Beijing conference by agreeing on the third to meet again to discuss dismantling its nuclear program in exchange for economic aid and security guarantees. But North Korea reneged on this pledge the day after the conference ended.

North Korea’s brinkmanship appears to be alarming the one nation upon whose goodwill North Korea’s survival depends — China.

That the multilateral conference was held at all was a tactical diplomatic triumph for the United States. North Korea originally had demanded direct bilateral negotiations with the United States, and China originally had offered only to host bilateral talks. It was the Bush administration that insisted that North Korea’s nuclear program is primarily a regional issue which the regional powers — China, Russia, Japan and South Korea — should take the lead in addressing.

North Korea’s belligerence suggests that the efforts of Kim Jong Il’s government to play some of the conferees off against the others — to divide and rule — weren’t working. China and Russia, North Korea’s historic defenders, are discovering that it serves their interests more to work with the United States than to try to thwart U.S. policy.

It could well have been America that was isolated in Beijing. The other nations agreed to join the negotiations as much out of concern for what U.S. might do in response to North Korea’s nuclear program as out of concern for the program itself. For slightly differing reasons, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea all want to prop up Kim Jong Il’s regime. But North Korea’s behavior is making it clear to all that it is North Korea that’s the problem, a problem which urgently must be addressed.

The difficulty isn’t getting North Korea to make a deal. The difficulty is in getting North Korea to live up to any bargain it makes. The Beijing conference took place because North Korea cheated on, and then repudiated a 1994 agreement in which the Clinton administration, South Korea and Japan offered massive aid in exchange for North Korea’s promise to shut down its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon.

“I can’t see any scenario where North Korea would unambiguously give up its nuclear program,” said Steve Clemons, executive director of the Japan Policy Research Institute. “Without nuclear weapons, North Korea is just another Zambia, another failed nation.”

A deal can only work if China, North Korea’s historic patron, acts as an explicit guarantor. North Korea has proven it can stumble along, barely, without aid from the United States, South Korea and Japan. But if China — which provides North Korea with most of its food and up to 90 percent of its fuel — were to cut off aid, the regime would be no more than months away from total collapse.

China has been unwilling to wield the stick. But China’s rulers are coming to realize a nuclear armed North Korea presents a far greater threat to its interests than to those of the United States.

A likely consequence of a nuclear armed North Korea would be a nuclear armed South Korea, a nuclear armed Japan, and perhaps a nuclear armed Taiwan — all dismaying prospects to the Chinese. But the nation which has the most to fear from a nuclear armed North Korea is China herself, said University of Pennsylvania prof. Arthur Waldron, a renowned Sinologist.

“From the Chinese point of view this is a very, very serious problem, the implications of which are just beginning to dawn on them,”Mr. Waldron said. “I guess what they are hoping is that somehow the Americans will fix things for them.”

The thrust of the Bush administration’s diplomatic strategy is to convince China and the other regional powers that North Korea is more their problem than ours, and that if a peaceful solution is to be found, they’ll have to take the lead in finding it. North Korea’s bad behavior is helping out.

Jack Kelly, a syndicated columnist, is a former Marine and Green Beret and a former deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force in the Reagan administration. He is national security writer for the Pittsburgh (Pa.) Post-Gazette.

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