North Korea warned South Korea and America not to conduct their joint exercises, but the wolf’s cry is no longer heard. Military drills are in full effect and scheduled to run until March 18th, and since no one listened to Kim Jong II, being unavoidable necessitates a visit to China himself.
But rather than what Kim and China want from each other, the better question is what China wants from America.
In anticipation of Kim’s first trip to Beijing in four years, North Korea has intimated a willingness to return to six-party denuclearization talks. Bipolar behavior is typical of Pyongyang, which regularly alternates between threats and peace overtures. The North said it will only return to six-party talks with America, South Korea, China, Russia and Japan after UN sanctions are lifted.
It also wants bilateral peace talks with America in order to formally end the Korean War.
Washington responded that North Korea must first return to the six party talks and begin the denuclearization process before bilateral talks can proceed. South Korea's JoongAng Ilbo newspaper reported that a North Korean delegation will return to the six-party talks in early April and "present its idea to move forward denuclearization.”
Thus the situation progresses from one game to the next. North Korea and the international community are two chickens caught in a staring contest. While both sides’ egos are on the line, it behooves America to forgo pride and do what it can to restore a sense of reality to the region. The rest of the world would follow.
To this end it was optimistic to hear US ambassador to South Korea, Kathleen Stephens, deaden the North’s threats.
“The United States has neither hostile intent toward the people of North Korea nor are we threatening to change the North Korean regime through force," she said at a forum in Seoul, hosted by the Korean Council for Reconciliation and Cooperation. "Our aim is to find diplomatic solutions with North Korea.”
“The language has become more positive,” she conceded. Too bad she still hit the wall: “We need to see actions.”
North Korea, impoverished and constantly flirting with disaster, has nothing to offer. Having been burned by America’s empty promises, creating deep insecurities, the North cannot be expected to blink first, to put up the money before America. If the North was a drunk driver, it is America’s responsibility to yield.
And treating it as a pariah won’t solve the problem.
This is why former U.N. nuclear chief Mohamed ElBaradei cautioned, "The issue involves North Korea's insecurity and need for economic development, and in order for headway to be made, the world should address both these issues.”
How America actually addresses the North’s demands can go several ways, but they all involve a gesture of good faith that, if executed properly, could have little downside.
Non-weapons related sanctions can be lightened. Economic and humanitarian aid can be shipped in quantities small enough to not be wasted but large enough to demonstrate goodwill. President Obama can stop boasting of isolating North Korea since no tangible gain comes from issuing threats.
Engaging in direct peace talks would be excessive without any return, but the option should be explored and tied into the six-party talks. Naturally engaging North Korea is risky and subject to loss. Diplomacy can be a gamble (as Obama should know from Palestine), yet it must be pursued if the conflict is to be permanently resolved.
The idea of officially ending the Korean War should be treated as a good thing.
But the reality is that America cannot afford inaction on North Korea if it expects Chinese cooperation on Iran. Beijing's envoy to North Korea, former Vice Foreign Minister Wu Dawei, recently told the China Daily, "China's goal is to start the six-party talks in the first half of this year. That's our expectation, but it is difficult to say if this will be realized."
Dawei’s expectation, projected to 2011, is not so different from America and Israel’s call for UN sanctions or military action on Iran.
Just as a line can be drawn from Palestine to Iraq to Pakistan, from Kashmir to Afghanistan, Naxalites, and Sri Lanka, a direct line exists between America, China, Iran, and North Korea. America must positively engage North Korea if Obama is to reasonably expect China’s support on Iran.
The two conflicts have become inseparable.
We can bet that while China bends Kim-Jong II back into six-party talks, it’s also working the private lines with Washington to reach a compromise. With Israel’s actions destroying its international image by the day, Iranian sanctions don’t have the strength they once did. Brazil and China are out, with Beijing rejecting Israel. Sincerely re-engaging North Korea might be the only way America can move China on Iran.
Obtaining China’s influence would be a less violent strategy than open confrontation. Beijing is waiting for Obama’s actions.