With six-nation talks convening in Beijing on Wednesday, and with recent claims that North Korea is developing a long-range missle that could reach Hawai`i or Alaska fresh on their minds, an international group of government officials, academics, economists and business leaders convened last week for the 5th Annual Senior Seminar at the East-West Center. That the Korean peninsula must remain free of nuclear weapons was not in dispute, but what such a policy might cost remains a daunting question.
The 32 delegates at the seminar represented the U.S., Pakistan, South Korea, Indonesia, the Australia, Bangladesh, China, India, Japan, Taiwan, Thailand and the Philippines. Among the basic questions addressed: Is North Korea capable of making timely decisions or joining much less succeeding in the international community? Can the Pyongyang regime survive, with or without nuclear weapons? A number of experts believe the answers are no, which leads to more serious questions: Can the world live with a nuclear North Korea? With the current North Korea regime?
Participants agreed that this week’s six-party talks are a good step forward, but that having more players at the table will present more challenges — reflected in the different opinions offered during the seminar. Nonetheless, if North Korea wants security guarantees, delegates noted, all six countries must be involved in the discussion.
Each of the countries at the talks has its own priorities. According to an East-West Center synopsis, China will tell North Korea it’s the “end of the free ride,” and South Korea will face a Catch-22: it wants a diplomatic solution, not a military one, but since North Korea is clearly using its nuclear weapons program as a negotiating chip, South Korea will be more willing to follow a hard U.S.-Japan line. China will face a “moment of truth” about what to do if it can’t convince Pyongyang to give up its WMD, delegates said, and Washington will face the same if neighbor countries can’t convince North Korea to change.
The Bush administration has stated that it can live with a non-nuclear regime. But participants were uncertain whether President George Bush, who has made explicit “his disgust” for the North Korean regime, can contemplate assuring its survival.
The fundamental questions remain: Can the United States live with a nuclear North Korea or with the current regime if it remains unchanged?
American experts offered a variety of comments regarding the dilemma faced by U.S. foreign policymakers.
U.S. ambassador to South Korea Thomas Hubbard told members of the press that there was “some degree of hope or optimism” about the Beijing talks but didn’t predict early or quick results. “We’re prepared to take time to do this right.”
Asked about a non-aggression agreement with North Korea, he said the real issue was whether North Korea would change. If it does, “there should be some way of formulating our non- aggressive intent.”
Hubbard said President Bush has no intention of invading North Korea, nor was there a policy to press for a change of leadership. “We’re aiming at behavioral change.” But, he said, the end of North Korea’s WMD program must be “complete, verifiable, non-reversible.”
He also said a U.S.-North Korea agreement was not sought but rather a “broader agreement.” He said multilateral talks were the right formula in dealing with North Korea and that China’s role was a very positive sign offering “some glimmer of hope.”
Ralph Cossa, president of the Honolulu-based Pacific Forum/CSIS, said: “While few would shed a tear over regime change in North Korea, President Bush has said that his administration can live with the Kim Jong-il regime if it gives up its nuclear weapons program. But many, including Pyongyang, are skeptical.”
Cossa said Pyongyang may still be skeptical of statements out of South Korea and China that their current support would be threatened if they continue to pursue nuclear weapons.
“We need to convince the North Koreans that possessing nuclear weapons makes them less, rather than more, secure; that the disadvantages outweigh the advantages,” he said.
J. Stapleton Roy, managing director of Kissinger Associates, Inc. and former ambassador to China, Indonesia and Singapore, questioned whether North Korea was capable of joining the international community in light of failed attempts by China and South Korea to help the impoverished country.
With no clear assurances that disarmament in North Korea could be verified, similar to Iraq, Roy asked if regime change might be the only alternative, and if so, how that could be accomplished.
Stephen Bosworth, dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, said China’s active engagement has been decisive and that the United States was right to stick to its demands for multilateral talks. Still, he said the “key deal” must be struck between the United States and North Korea, since only the United States can provide what Pyongyang wants — assurance it won’t be attacked.
If there is an agreement, he said, it will be a “bilateral agreement in multilateral ribbons.”