This week, under pressure from the United States, 21 Asian countries made a rare show of unity, calling for an end to North Korea’s reported nuclear arms development. Japan said the nuclear revelations jeopardize talks on normalizing relations. China pledged to help seek a non-nuclear Korean Peninsula. But on Tuesday, North Korea gave its response to the chorus of demands to give up its nuclear weapons program: no. Pyongyang’s defiance reflects how little influence North Korea’s neighbors can exert — or are actually willing to exert — on the isolated communist regime.
The White House says North Korea has admitted to a program of uranium enrichment — or at least did not deny such a program when presented damning new evidence by a U.S. State Department official. Such a program would violate the 1994 Agreed Framework, under which North Korea receives power and economic assistance in return for shelving its own nuclear program.
Pyongyang has made clear it wants to negotiate with the United States on the issue. But the Bush administration says the issue is non-negotiable. And it wants its Asian allies to send the same message — showing that all parties are “marching in lockstep” with Washington on the issue, as one senior U.S. official put it.
“What the U.S. doesn’t want is to get into open-ended and unsatisfactory negotiations with North Korea,” says Jonathan Pollack, chairman of strategic research at the U.S. Naval War College. “The idea is to convey that they don’t have many options out there,” Pollack says.
Regional leaders certainly aren’t pleased by the nuclear revelation. In a statement at the annual meeting of APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) in Mexico over the weekend, leaders called on North Korea to “visibly honor its commitment to give up nuclear weapons programs.”
But the statement did not go as far as the United States had hoped it would, stopping short of condemning North Korea for trying to build a nuclear bomb.
And even the countries most able to influence the regime are resisting the hard line of the Bush administration, in part because they don’t see it working.
“The problem with North Koreans is that they are willing to take a lot of pain in order to make their point,” said Clark Sorenson, a Korean studies professor at the University of Washington. “They’re afraid that if they give up the program, the U.S. will ignore them altogether. This is their ace.”
Japan's stalled talks
Among the most persuasive neighbors should have been Japan, which was engaged in the start of talks to normalize relations with North Korea when the reports of North Korea’s nuclear program emerged from Washington.
After wavering on how tough a line to take with North Korea, Japan opted to continue talks, including discussion of the nuclear issue, following its strategy of engagement rather than isolation.
But while Pyongyang desperately needs the billions in economic aid that Japan could bring to the table, meetings with Japanese officials in Malaysia went badly. A Japanese delegation official said the North “completely denied” calls for the country to give up its nuclear weapons program.
Instead, the North Korean negotiators repeated a demand for a non-aggression pact with Washington as a condition for abandoning its nuclear weapons program, but it did not accept abandoning the weapons as a precondition for normalization with Japan.
“Our thinking is that... security issues will be solved along the way,” said Pak Ryoong Yeon, one of the delegation’s top officials.
Sunshine policy continues
The Korean War ended in the division of South and North across the 38th parallel. Thousands of North Koreans face off with U.S. and South Korean troops across this line, with the two sides technically still at war.
Still, South Korea is least likely of the parties to lean heavily on Pyongyang.
Under the “sunshine policy” of South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, Pyongyang and Seoul have made unprecedented progress, establishing nascent commercial links, permitting meetings between estranged family members, transfer of aid and the start of construction of rail links.
Despite protest in Seoul following the nuclear news, and frustration that the North takes more than it gives, analysts say South Korea is unlikely to depart radically from its current policy of engagement.
For one thing, the South has a huge stake in continuing to build ties and encouraging economic change to help ensure that the North does not collapse. Analysts say the cost, in relative terms, for South Korea to absorb a failed North Korean state would be far greater than that faced by West Germany when the wall came down between it and East Germany.
Not only that, but South Koreans see the nuclear concern as a U.S. concern, says Sorenson. “Most (South Koreans) don’t believe nuclear weapons would ever be used against other Koreans,” Sorenson says.
South Korea was set to continue working-level talks with North Korea Wednesday and has said other South-North exchanges would proceed as scheduled despite the nuclear dispute.
Dilemma for an old comrade
Despite a mild public response to the news of North Korea’s nuclear program, China is reportedly mortified by the prospect of a nuclear North Korea. While Beijing does not see itself as a target, it does fear that the program could provoke others into undesirable action in the region — giving Japan an excuse to arm itself with nuclear weapons, for instance, or giving the United States further justification for its regional missile shield, which China staunchly opposes.
Beijing certainly does not want to be drawn into a conflict on the side of Pyongyang by virtue of an old mutual defense treaty that remains on the books with North Korea.
China has a record of helping behind the scenes in negotiations with North Korea. Asia experts say Beijing helped negotiate the 1994 Agreed Framework, for instance. China has also tried to nudge impoverished North Korea to reform its rigid state-run economy.
So in meetings with President Bush last week at the Bush ranch, President Jiang Zemin pledged to help in the quest for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. But Beijing no longer has the pull it once did with its long-time communist ally.
The close relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang, dating to the 1950s when China fought with North Korea against the United States and South Korea, has given way to commercial concerns. China established diplomatic relations with South Korea in 1992, making way for billions of dollars in trade and investment.
The death of the elder North Korean leader Kim Il Sung in 1994 and rise of his son Kim Jong Il further limited Chinese influence. The younger Kim cut some of his father’s Chinese-leaning advisers and veered toward Russia, Korea watchers say.
As a major food and humanitarian aid donor to North Korea, China could threaten to cut supplies. But Beijing is unlikely to follow through, because that would only push North Korea closer to the brink of collapse — which is the least desirable outcome for China. Not only would it likely send a flood of North Korean refugees across its border, but it could put U.S. forces — which now remain poised south of the 38th parallel — right on its border.
Even post-communist Russia has its reasons not to be too hard on North Korea. Moscow is close to a deal to construct links between its trans-Siberian railway and the trans-Korean railway that North and South are building. The resulting transcontinental rail would significantly reduce obstacles to South Korean-European goods, which now travel by ship.
Russia’s Tass News agency reported on Tuesday that Railways Minister Gennady Fadeyev was in Pyongyang discussing the plan.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.