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Playing Pyongyang’s Game By: Robert T. McLean
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, April 21, 2006

The North Korean nuclear program has been a top concern for the Bush administration since the 2002 revelation of Pyongyang’s secret uranium enrichment program. At one time a widely discussed crisis in the media and policy circles, negotiations to halt North Korea’s nuclear efforts have once again entered an extended deferment and the issue seems to be largely forgotten by most observers. While progress has stalled and public attention has shifted elsewhere, the situation remains as dire as ever.

North Korea is playing a high stakes game and has been relatively successful to date as a consequence of the disunity between the five members of the six-party talks seeking to reach a settlement with Kim Jong-Il’s despotic regime.  Each member state involved in the negotiations has a different agenda, but this has largely been disguised as a simple disagreement on methods.  The United States must come to grips with the fact that they are the biggest loser in a prolonged negotiation.  Yet, even with that understanding, the Bush administration is relearning that multilateralism is not always the key to foreign policy efficiency. 

The principal dilemma in persuading North Korea to become serious about negotiations is the lack of will on the part of China and South Korea to increase pressure on Pyongyang.  The United States and Japan have done a far better job than their negotiating partners in refusing to play Pyongyang’s game, and Washington has widely been considered the most stringent in the negotiations with the DPRK.  The Bush administration continues to deny Kim Jong Il and his government a security guarantee until concrete and irreversible steps are made to open up North Korea’s nuclear program to international inspectors and the dismantlement of the weapons component is commenced.  A current obstruction to the resumption of the six-party talks lies in North Korea’s refusal to return to the negotiating table until the United States lifts a freeze on its assets in a Macau Bank that allegedly are tied to a counterfeit and money laundering scheme. 


Japan refuses to establish official relations with North Korea, and the tense relations between the two countries have carried over in to the six-party talks.  Tokyo froze all food aid to North Korea in December of 2004 as a result of continued North Korean defiance of their requests for cooperation in investigations into abductions of Japanese citizens.  A North Korean human rights bill is currently being considered in Japan that Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe said “may be significant in a sense that international pressure will be put on North Korea to seek [a] solution to the problems, including [the] abduction issue.” 


South Korea and China, however, have taken a different approach.  Seoul has maintained a position of pragmatic engagement and provides its northern neighbor with about 20 percent of its overall trade.  By April 2005, the joint “Economic Cooperation Projects” between Seoul and Pyongyang had supplied North Korea with $5.6 billion of economic assistance and investment.  Though not directly linked with the nuclear issue, the South Korean Government appears more willing to provide Pyongyang with billions in economic assistance than it is to even mention basic freedoms with one of the world’s principle violators of human rights.


A sample of how South Korean President Roh Moo-Hyun seeks to engage the North is illustrated by the manner in which Seoul has approached the issue of its prisoners of war and abducted civilians in North Korea.  South Korean officials estimate that this number exceeds one thousand prisoners and Unification Minister Lee Jong-seok told the South Korean National Assembly earlier this month: “I am thinking about proposing a bold economic aid package to North Korea to resolve the issue of abducted civilians, POWs, and separated families.”  If providing economic aid as a reward for holding its civilians against their will is considered a bold initiative by the South Korean Government, how should their government be expected to help persuade the DPRK to abandon its nuclear weapons program?


Similarly, China’s trade with North Korea is only expanding as Beijing accounts for nearly half of Pyongyang’s exports and one-third of their imports.  Currently, Beijing makes up about 40 percent of North Korea’s trade, up from about 28 percent in 2001.  China also provides about 80 percent of North Korea's fuel, and as the International Crisis Group reported in February, the PRC supplies all of Pyongyang’s oil.  According to Sisa Journal, a leading South Korean news magazine, the signing of the “Economic and Technological Cooperation Agreement” by Chinese president Hu Jintao during an October visit to Pyongyang yielded $3 billion in investment and trade credits to North Korea.  Beijing is also constructing transportation infrastructure to facilitate the shipment of North Korean raw materials across the border into northeast China. 


On April 15, KBS 1 TV of South Korea did a segment on North Korea’s growing dependence on China.  An interview with a Pyongyang resident revealed the prevailing local sentiment that the Chinese are highly influential in their country with the remarks: “We have the view that we are alive thanks to China.  We live thanks to China because everything we eat and use comes from China.”  Unfortunately, Beijing – with the notable addition of Seoul – refuses to use this leverage to coerce the North Koreans to act responsibly.  As the BBC reported, “China and South Korea provide huge food shipments to North Korea without overseeing where it ends up.”  With little conditions placed on the aid provided to Pyongyang, Beijing and Seoul are not only limiting their potential impact of the behavior of Kim’s regime, but are effectively supporting it by allowing him to use that aid as a tool for domestic political coercion. 


While strong measures from the United States and Japan may have an influence in the multilateral process, it is obvious that these are more than offset by China, Russia, and South Korea.  To illustrate the impact that Beijing can have on the negotiations, one needs to look no further than the above noted Chinese dominance on North Korean fuel supplies.  Ostensibly caused by a faulty pipeline, Chinese delivery of fuel to North Korea was suspended in early 2003 – at a time when it was becoming apparent that the United States was set to invade Iraq – in a palpable effort to convince Pyongyang to enter talks with the United States and China on its nuclear weapons program.  It is quite possible that Beijing decided to use this enormous leverage only after they came to the conclusion that the Bush administration was serious about using force to overthrow rogue regimes.


Multiple factors contribute to China’s seemingly soft-line towards North Korea.  Historically the Chinese have always attempted to maintain a friendly regime in the North of the Korean Peninsula.  This was the principle motive for the PRC’s entry into the Korean War in October of 1950, and any collapse of Kim Jong Il’s government could result in mass refugee crossings into Northeast China   Additionally, a responsible leadership in Pyongyang or a unification of the peninsula would trigger a diversion of South Korean investment in China to North Korea.  It should also be clear that that the Chinese Communist Party places some value in the continued presence of a totalitarian madman on its border as it diverts international attention from its own troubling behavior. 


Russia, for its part, has appeared disinterested as it is more concerned with its near-abroad and the Middle East than Kim’s “hermit kingdom.”  Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Alexeyev stipulated on April 13 that Moscow and Pyongyang will cooperate to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula based on the relationships developed with Kim Il Sung.  According to Alexeyev, this was a period when the “foundations were laid for the development of Russian-North Korean relations on the principles of equality, mutual respect, non-interference in each other’s affairs as well as cooperation on the international arena.”  The Russian minister went on to note:  “These principles serve as a foundation for our present-day relations and will remain a powerful basis for bilateral cooperation in the future.”  In other words, as long as the historic partnership remains relatively healthy, Moscow will refrain from actions that could jeopardize Kim’s regime. 


The North Korean leadership understands this game well, and just as Beijing and Moscow have used the situation in Northeast Asia to their advantage, Pyongyang does not hesitate to reciprocate.  The DPRK halted shipments from the World Food Program (WFP) at the end of 2005 because it knew that China and South Korea would rapidly fill the void without requiring the same monitoring process that the WFP had demanded.  As was noted Jeffrey Roberson in The Asian Times: “It makes sense to North Korea to seek an end to the irritating interference of WFP,” as Kim’s regime has simply increased the amount of requested fertilizers and food aid from Beijing and Seoul. 


Another manner in which Pyongyang uses the six-party talks to its advantage has been its ability to reinforce the North Korean semi-religion of Juche.  This ideology is best described by Andrew Scobell from the Strategic Studies Institute as meaning “Korean first” in that it is extremely nationalistic in its concepts.  When state officials and leaders visit North Korea – such as Chinese President Hu Jintao’s late October visit and Defense Minister Cao Gangchuan’s stopover earlier this month – these are portrayed as pilgrimages.  Foreign aid is presented as tribute, and the United States and Japan are depicted as imperialist aggressors.  Thus, it is clear that Pyongyang has been able to turn the multilateral process on its head and use the differences in methods and objectives of the members of the six-party talks to remain in power and increase its nuclear capabilities.


Seven months after the major media reported that North Korea had agreed to surrender its nuclear weapons, Pyongyang remains no closer to giving up its nuclear program than it was prior to the September 19, 2005 “breakthrough.”  The South Koreans are timid, the Chinese and Russians are content with the status quo, and the United States and Japan are left with few options.  It would be inaccurate to state that the six-party talks have reached an impasse, as all progress to this point has merely been superficial. 


All of the multilateralists in the media and policy circles that continue to preach the virtues of their ways and point to Iraq as a verification that the Bush administration foolishly went into Iraq “unilaterally” have been conspicuously silent on North Korea as of late.  Iran seems to have taken a cue from the North Koreans, and short of hostilities or a highly unlikely breakthrough – again the Russians and Chinese refuse to take a strong stance – a prolonged process with few results seems inevitable.  As a result of self-interests consuming Washington’s partners in the negotiations with North Korea, the United States will soon realize that it is loosing a game that it can ill afford to lose.


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Robert T. McLean is a Research Associate at the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C.

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