Friday, October 22, 2004


So argues Ralph Cossa.
Whether you are a Republican or Democrat, if you are concerned about events on the Korean peninsula, you had to come away from the first presidential debate feeling quite distressed. Neither President Bush nor Sen. John Kerry had his facts straight and, collectively, they managed to significantly reduce the already slim chance that there would be any near-term progress in the currently stalled six-party talks to denuclearize North Korea.

Neither candidate seemed to know that Beijing like Seoul, Moscow and even Tokyo has long encouraged Washington to deal directly with Pyongyang or that, in late June, a bilateral U.S.-North Korea discussion actually occurred, much to China's delight.

By repeatedly pledging that his administration would not discuss the problem one on one with the North because "it's precisely what Kim Jong-il wants," Mr. Bush has again undercut the credibility of his own negotiators while seemingly putting his personal disdain for North Korea's leader ahead of U.S. national security interests.
A few random reactions:
--I suspect that one reason why the PRC has favored direct bilateral talks and has been reluctant to get on board the six-party format is the fear that the talks will fail. If the failure comes after a genuine and sincere offer made in the six-party format (an offer that has yet to be made by diplomats in Washington whose hands are tied by internal division and Bush's stated aversion to "appeasement), the PRC has little to no justification for resisting what might follow: an American attempt to impose consequences on North Korea for its intransigence--either sanctions (which the DPRK has repeatedly stated are tantamount to an act of war) or a military strike. If the failed talks are bilateral U.S.-DPRK only, the PRC can claim that the impasse is due to intransigence on both sides and argue that there is no international consensus for taking more harsh measures toward the DPRK. And it can, at its leisure, ignore American calls for sanctions (or worse)
--It has occurred to me in recent days that perhaps this long, drawn-out, tedious process of holding round after round of unproductive talks, working groups etc. might actually be the best possible alternative because it delays and defers the excruciatingly difficult question of what to do if (when?) North Korea says "no" to whatever package deal the U.S. (or the five parties) put together. If this happens, North Korea's neighbors are left with the choice of doing nothing and allowing the DPRK nuclear weapons program to continue or of taking more severe measures and facing the potential consequences. Perhaps muddling through an endless succession of indecisive talks is the best we can hope for.
--The presidential debate and most of the American opinion--whether in the mass media or in wonk/punditland--focuses on U.S. policy as the key determinant. I agree that American policy is not inconsequential. And, I would argue that for what it is worth, a six-party format is more likely to achieve some sort of negotiated settlement than a bilateral one which allows the DPRK to use its time-tested tactic of divide and conquer. But, at the end of the day, I also believe that far more important than Bush or Kerry, or six- or two-party talks formats, is what the Kim Jong Il regime really wants. The rest is secondary.

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