North Korea

Negotiations with North Korea may restart, but to what end?

Donald Kirk believes Pyongyang won't give up its nuclear programme

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 April, 2013, 3:25am

North Korea has stepped gingerly to the brink of a dreaded second Korean war. Now the question is whether there's a face-saving way to bring about dialogue so the North can, in effect, declare a rhetorical victory and go into negotiations.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, in his recent trip to Seoul, Beijing and Tokyo, has intimated that it hardly matters how, where or in what format the talks are held. He did say, however, that North Korea has to move towards giving up its nuclear programme.

The critical word there is how far North Korea has to "move". Pyongyang has said it will never give up its nukes despite agreements reached in 2007 that seemed to have provided specific conditions for doing just that. The betting is that we would be deluding ourselves if we thought North Korea at this stage would abandon its programme.

That does not mean, however, that talks, or talks about talks, cannot begin. Nor does it mean that North Korea has to go on holding a nuclear club over the region - even over the United States, if we are to believe some of the threats about strikes at the White House and Pentagon.

The US, more than ever, is emphatically hitting the ball into China's court. In his stopover in Beijing, Kerry pleaded with Chinese leaders to lean on the North Koreans, who count on China for their survival. China, after all, is the source of 80 per cent of North Korea's fuel - most of the rest comes from coal mined in the North - and half its food. Wouldn't China have ultimate power over North Korea, a protectorate in a real sense of the word?

Not exactly. China's top priority remains that of peace and stability.

By maintaining the status quo, China has the best of both halves of the bifurcated Korean nation. China, as South Korea's biggest trading partner, enjoys a sizeable balance of trade with the South and also counts on South Korea for investment and expertise.

China earns far less from North Korea - perhaps nothing in view of bills owed for all that fuel and food - but does have a stake in North Korea's mineral riches.

China jointly operates companies with North Korea that are tapping into the nation's mines for natural resources, including gold and uranium and much else that's far from fully exploited.

Under these circumstances, the Chinese would doubtless prefer to return to the role of host of six-party talks that would probably go nowhere in practical achievements but would at least head off a conflict that could turn into a regional war.

There's no telling how such a war would end. China would not want US or US-backed South Korean forces rampaging up to its Yalu and Tumen river borders with North Korea. The US would have to go through a huge political debate before committing hundreds of thousands of troops as it did during the Korean and Vietnam wars.

South Korea's President Park Geun-hye is talking tough about the need to counter-attack if North Korea strikes, as it did against a naval vessel and a small island in the Yellow Sea in 2010 with the loss of 50 lives. She has made it clear, though, that she would prefer to go down the negotiating route - laborious and unproductive though that might be.

The vast majority of South Koreans feel the same way. On the streets of Seoul, no one is talking about war or looking for bomb shelters. The mood is all for peace and dialogue. The question remains where, how, on what terms and to what end.

Journalist Donald Kirk is the author of three books and numerous articles on Korea