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[Karl Friedhoff] Taking a crowbar to the ‘Baseball Three’

Throughout the six-party talks, the “Baseball Three” ― a term reportedly coined by Ambassador Christopher Hill to describe the baseball-playing democracies of Japan, South Korea and the United States ― have banded together in an attempt to denuclearize North Korea. However, maintaining unity among the partners has not always been easy. North Korea has tried to play these nations against one another, taking advantage of their differing interests. With North Korea’s July 22 proposal to restart the six-party talks, the Baseball Three once again face a challenge to maintain their unity.

On several occasions North Korea has taken shrewd steps to frustrate attempts aimed at its denuclearization. It initially flaunted its nuclear sophistication in its Nov. 12, 2010 admission of a modern uranium enrichment facility housing 2,000 centrifuges. It then drove the point home that North Korea is not Syria, and will not be denuclearized by force, by shelling Yeonpyeong Island on Nov. 23. North Korea then resumed its isolation from the international community. Only now is it showing interest in resuming dialogue. By proposing the talks, North Korea assumes the role of willing partner, seemingly ready to sit down, negotiate, and to ultimately become a responsible stakeholder in Northeast Asia.

North Korea’s current proposal to restart the six-party talks follows unusually candid disclosure of its food shortage. Recent overtures seem designed to garner increased international food aid. While that is one possible objective, the proposal also fulfills a larger goal for Pyongyang of driving a wedge between the Baseball Three.

North Korea’s proposal, which came in Bali on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum, also called for the exclusion of both Japan and Russia from the negotiations. Therein lies the rub. The United States will not move forward without Japan, especially at a time when Japan is facing daunting domestic challenges caused by the earthquake and tsunami in early March. Washington has also stated that any resumption of negotiations must remain focused on denuclearization.

The temptation for South Korea to move without Japan may be strong. This is one crack where North Korea’s crowbar can create a larger crack where a smaller one previously existed. The Japan-ROK bilateral relationship has always been complicated. In the context of the six-party talks, the delegations have had difficulty cooperating, most notably in the fourth round in 2005. The controversy over Dokdo Island, disagreement over the importance of the abductee issue, and other historical controversies prevented close coordination between the two nations. Recently, the controversy over Dokdo has flared yet again, and North Korea has stepped in with its proposal. The timing may not be intentional, but it is cause for concern given the history of relations between Japan and South Korea.

In addition, domestic politics in South Korea offer further temptation for Seoul to sacrifice the unity of the Baseball Three. Financial losses from the freeze in inter-Korean relations are reported to have totaled $4.6 billion thus far. The Lee administration has come under increasing criticism for its hard line policy towards North Korea. And Kim Gye-gwan has embarked on a trip to the United States, a sign interpreted by some as signaling that discussions have already begun, leaving South Korea alienated from the process. This view is reinforced by the fact that the U.S. visa for Kim Gye-gwan was already processed and approved before the two Koreas met in Bali. Only after their meeting was Kim Sung-hwan, foreign minister of South Korea, consulted about the visa. With elections in the United States approaching, the Obama administration is looking for peace and quiet on the Korean Peninsula. As a study led by Victor Cha at Georgetown University has shown, when North Korea is engaged in dialogue, it is not engaged in provocations.

These factors combine to reinforce the Lee administration’s motivation to consider its legacy on North Korea. Despite May’s secret between the North and South, and the ensuing embarrassment from North Korea exposing them in a very public fashion, President Lee still may desire a summit with Kim Jong-il. Following the selection of Pyeongchang as the host for the 2018 Winter Olympics his approval ratings received a significant bump. According the monthly opinion survey conducted by the Asan Institute, his approval ratings reached 41.3 percent, recovering from a low of 31.8 percent just two months earlier. Much of that new found political capital could be spent engaging the North at a time when North-South relations are not at the top of public concern.

While a resumption of the six-party talks remains uncertain, what should be clear is that North Korea’s proposal for a return to the negotiations is meant to act as a crowbar. Playing on the existing tensions between the Baseball Three, the North is applying pressure to that crowbar to pry the partners apart. The Baseball Three cannot and should not allow this to happen. Agreeing to accept a truncated six-party talks would be a significant step backwards. Any gains made in these talks would have to be funneled into the full multilateral negotiations, creating further delays in an already too long process. The efficacy of the six-party talks may be questioned, but they should remain exactly that, six-party talks.

By Karl Friedhoff

Karl Friedhoff is program officer of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies. The views expressed here are the views of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies. ― Ed
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