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Are normal relations with North Korea now possible?
Dr. Mark P. Barry
Tarrytown, United States
March 5, 2007

The February 13th agreement in the Six Party Talks on initial actions for the implementation of the September 2005 Joint Statement is meaningful progress towards resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue. Since December, there were three bilateral meetings between the U.S. and North Korean delegates in Berlin, as well as talks in Beijing between DPRK and U.S. Treasury Department officials. These preparations by an election-chastened Bush administration laid much of the groundwork for last month?s agreement. Early this week, official talks will be held in New York on steps to be taken toward normalization of U.S.-DPRK relations.

Clearly, the stage is set within the Six Party Talks framework to resolve an issue that has festered since 1990: ending North Korea?s nuclear program. But it would be a mistake to think that either North Korea has had a ?change of heart? or that U.S. financial pressure since October 2005 alone forced the North to make choices it previously could avoid. The real reasons for improvement in the talks have likely been the confluence of North Korea?s ever-more difficult geopolitical predicament with long overdue Bush administration recognition of the value of communicating and negotiating directly with the North.

However, U.S. policy can and should be made more effective, while in the context of the Six Party Talks framework. What is required is a deeper understanding of what North Korea really wants and the dynamics of its political culture. If these are properly understood, the North Korean nuclear issue can be resolved much more easily.

In January, an extraordinary commentary appeared in The Washington Post that flew in the face of conventional wisdom about North Korea?s motivations for its behavior. Written by Robert Carlin, a former State Department intelligence analyst with considerable experience inside North Korea, and John W. Lewis, a top Stanford University scholar, the authors? concur with assessments of Universal Peace Federation representatives long familiar with the North. ?Above all,? the authors write, North Korea ?wants? a long-term, strategic relationship with the United States.?It is a cold, hard calculation based on history and the realities of geopolitics as perceived in Pyongyang.? They add, ?The North Koreans believe in their gut that they must buffer the heavy influence their neighbors already have, or could soon gain, over their small, weak country.?

For years North Korean propaganda called for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the peninsula, but in fact, that is the last thing it wants. The writers observe that ?because of their pride and fear of appearing weak,?explicitly requesting that the United States stay is one of the most difficult things for the North Koreans to do.?

Evidence indicates North Korea?s top leadership does not wish to remain permanent enemies with the U.S. There is a desire to change the adversarial relationship. North Korea has assessed the ?colonial? management styles of the U.S., China, Russia, and Japan, and concluded that only with the U.S. would they be able to maintain their status as an independent nation.

Meanwhile, the North?s position on China has changed. It no longer trusts China as a guarantor of its independence. The North Korean top leadership holds animosity toward China for the way, in their perception, China has used them for their own benefit, including in the Six Party Talks. Furthermore, the DPRK leadership fears China considers Kim Jong Il too independent of China. North Korea does not feel its security is guaranteed in its relationship with China, even though it temporarily accommodates with China to sustain its economy.

North Korea perceives it is under enormous pressure from China, with whom it shares an 880 mile border, and fears its days of national independence may be numbered. It considers China?s ?Northeast Project,? an attempt by scholars to claim that northern Korea historically was part of China, to be a ?shot across the bow.? Chinese investment in the DPRK economy has skyrocketed since 2002. While, undeniably, a revived North Korean economy will benefit China?s three Northeast ?rust belt? provinces, there is a growing concern that an invigorated DPRK economy could be compelled to integrate into China?s. This would transform North Korea into a client state of China, and deprive the Korean people of the prospect of unification for the foreseeable future.

In principle, the Six Party Talks is an appropriate format to resolve not only the nuclear issue, but matters related to creating a permanent peninsular peace regime. After all, each of the four major powers bears some responsibility for Korea?s division or maintaining it. But, as Carlin and Lewis write, the Six Party Talks are ?a microcosm of the strategic world [North Korea] most fears. Three strategic foes ? China, Japan and Russia ? sit in judgment, apply pressure and (to Pyongyang?s mind) insist on the North?s permanent weakness.?

The U.S. has given astonishing responsibility to China to host the Six Party Talks on the premise it is the one nation with influence over the North. But this has also bestowed considerable regional prestige to China at the expense of American influence. Will the end result of China?s work in the Talks eventually be the economic absorption of the North? That would indeed bring long-term stability to the region, a chief American objective, but would also be another historical injustice inflicted upon the Korean people.

A number of American experts on Korean affairs argue that the long-term solution to the North Korea problem is its economic absorption, preferably by South Korea but even by China. The reality is that South Korea has limited economic influence with North Korea at present, despite its potential; yet, China?s economic leverage over the North is overwhelming and intimidating.

The problem with U.S. economic and political pressure upon the North has been it pushed the DPRK further into the hands of China. Such a misguided policy is to the detriment of the Korean people, north and south. Another byproduct would be the further decline of American influence on the peninsula, and in Northeast Asia as a whole. It makes more sense for the United States to have normal relations with both Koreas, just as China maintains ties and influence with both. The United States should preserve its influence in East Asia for the sake of keeping the balance of power among China, Russia and Japan.

While maintenance of U.S. pressure on North Korea has made sense from a limited perspective, it did not take into account the wider picture and its implications. The U.S. may ?win the battle? by successfully circumscribing North Korea?s room for maneuver, causing it to make choices it could previously avoid; but it could ?lose the war? by placing North Korea into Chinese custody, wittingly or unwittingly, and disengaging from the peninsula. In January, President Bush publicly confirmed his approach when he told The Wall Street Journal that the point of American financial sanctions was ?to use the sanctions to get North Korea to give up on its [nuclear] weapons programs.?

While the idea of engaging North Korea may be repugnant to some Americans, it in fact is the best avenue not only to solve the nuclear issue, but to ensure Korean reunification does not become a lost dream. There is a way to effectively engage North Korea: through senior-level engagement, not merely through mid-level bureaucrats with limited authority.

North Korea, for reasons already explained, is very anxious for high-level American visits, especially those carrying the authority of the President. That could be Secretary Rice, a James Baker, even former President Bush, the father. Once trust is built on that level, and in the North Korean public eye, it will bring about attitudinal change, new dynamics and new possibilities for both sides. In the end, we may find North Korea slowly willing to trade the security guarantee of its nuclear weapons for the security guarantee of a strategic friendship with the United States. In this sense, we have before us a historical opportunity with North Korea much like President Nixon had with China.

American insistence on legitimate but simultaneous demands ? such as North Korea ceasing criminal activities (counterfeiting, improving human rights, etc.), in addition to dismantling its nuclear program ? has been counterproductive, and the North simply dug in its heels. It is easy to see that North Korea?s nuclear test last October was to demonstrate it will not bend to U.S. pressure, and to strengthen its bargaining position. The status of existing nuclear weapons is a new wrinkle that did not exist when the Joint Statement was signed in September 2005. By placing the nuclear issue as the top priority in the context of senior-level engagement and leadership trust-building, the Bush administration is likely to see a major breakthrough with North Korea because of the North?s strategic need to forge strong ties with the U.S.

In the end, the U.S. should take responsibility ? in alliance with South Korea and Japan ? to ensure the best possible international environment that can lead to Korean unification supported by the four regional powers. Let?s hope that this week?s long-awaited normalization talks in New York set a date in the near future for Secretary Rice to visit Pyongyang.


Dr. Mark P. Barry coordinates the Northeast Asia Peace Initiative of the Universal Peace Federation.

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