Professor says bilateral discussions needed before 6-party talks
South Korea wants to protect its security and economic growth from North Korea’s threats, while the U.S. wants to defend its ally and its regional interests.
Both of them would like China’s help in dealing with the rogue state led by Kim Jong-il. But what does China want?
China expert and Yonsei University professor of international studies John Delury believes that expecting China to force a change in North Korea is contrary not only to its relationship with that regime, but with any nation around the world.
He sees this principle reflected in China’s recent public endorsement of North Korea’s plan to have Kim Jong-il succeeded by his son, Kim Jong-un.
“I think that China’s attitude toward North Korea is kind of like their attitude toward regimes worldwide,” Delury recently told The Korea Herald. “They take them as they are.”
Furthermore, he said China views the security problem on the Korean Peninsula differently to South Korea, as well as the U.S. ― which recently began warning of North Korean missiles that might one day be capable of reaching its territory.
There are those in all three countries who believe the situation will not reach a disastrous conclusion anytime soon, but the growing group of individuals in the U.S. and South Korea who fear a dire outcome are not present in China, he said.
“They’re much less apocalyptic in their thinking,” he said. “They have worst-case scenarios, but for the most part they think it can all muddle through.”
This is not to say they cannot accept changes, though: “I think the scenario they’re working toward is North Korea improving relations. They would have no objection, for example, to denuclearization, and North Korea becoming a functional state without a fundamental change to (its government).”
Delury earned his Ph.D. in Chinese history from Yale University, lived off and on in China for about four years, and is a senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations. In these roles he became a widely published scholar on both China and North Korea, and has taught at Columbia, Brown and Peking universities before joining Yonsei’s faculty last summer.
One idea he is quick to dispel is that China can simply force North Korea to denuclearize, or to cooperate with Western forces.
“I don’t think that’s anything like what China-North Korea relations will ever resemble,” he said. In fact, one analogy he has heard from some in China is North Korea as Israel, a nation that is a close ally ― and aid recipient ― of the U.S., but that sometimes acts independently of U.S. wishes.
Even if China were to present an ultimatum to North Korea, requiring them to reform in order to keep receiving aid, the North would most likely refuse, Delury said.
“The deeper illusion is that China would ever exercise (that influence),” Delury said. “China doesn’t act that way in any part of the world.”
China still prefers the six-party talks format for solving the issues on the peninsula, but Delury said the individual parties are not ready for that yet. Instead, he believes that the nations involved, particularly South Korea and Japan, have issues to work out with North Korea first.
Japan played a crucial role in the aid-for-denuclearization package previously offered to the North. Since the regime announced the discontinuation of the six-party talks in early 2009, Japan’s interest in them has, if anything, diminished, Delury said.
The U.S. should encourage the bilateral talks between the two Koreas first, he said, and later direct talks ― he considers “negotiations” too loaded a word ― could start between North Korea and the U.S.
Once ties have thawed between individual nations, the six-party talks could resume with the goal of restoring “some basic level of monitoring and inspection” both for uranium and plutonium, he said.
Just weeks before its deadly shelling of Yeonpyeong Island on Nov. 23, North Korea revealed a vast uranium enrichment facility to a visiting American nuclear scientist. Recent news reports indicate that the North is building underground tunnels, possibly in preparation for a third nuclear test. “A third test would be in order if this process doesn’t resume,” Delury said.
The process did not get off to an ideal start earlier this month when North Korea stormed out of bilateral defense talks. Delury, however, said he was not surprised.
“My sense is they were bound to fail, especially when the (South Korean) president, Lee Myung-bak, said he had high expectations about the talks. I heard that meaning one of two things: Either there’s really something big coming and they’ve already figured out that they’ve got an agreement on it, or the talks are going to die quickly.
“Because, generally speaking, high expectations are not a good way to come into a meeting with North Korea. Especially an agenda-setting meeting.”
How the current administration handles North Korea, with about two years left in Lee’s presidential term, may depend on whether or not there is public pressure on the administration to negotiate, he said.
“This administration may very well ride out the toughness all the way to the end. That’s more or less been their principle, their strategy.
“But they may very well come under some domestic political pressure, that that’s not what the people want,” he said.
Though he views the chances of war or a collapse of the regime as remote, he added, “North Korea is not going to remain dormant for long. They’ll generate stuff that needs to be dealt with.”
By Rob York (firstname.lastname@example.org)