The US has been super-keen to tell us all about how its colleagues in the Six Party Talks with North Korea are 100% behind it in demanding the DPRK’s denuclearisation, even to the extent of emphasising Russian support.
On the surface, it seems like the sort of thing that should go without saying. Surely fewer nukes for Kim is the sort of thing that we can all agree on?
Well, yes and no.
Whisper it not, but a good many South Korean patriots have been casting covetous eyes on Kim’s bombs for years. If Korea undergoes a German-style reunification, they will suddenly become a nuclear power, without having to go through all the dreary A. Q. Khan business. Moreover, President Park appears to have made reunification her legacy project – one that will not succeed without a large amount of sanctions-busting concessions.
Equally, the Chinese – the second potential target for the DPRK’s nukes – are pretty confident that the nuclear programme is merely Kim’s big hat, and that the North Koreans are far too sensible ever to bomb the origin of 90% of their foreign trade, however unfriendly they may be in public. Moreover, if North Korea were actually to collapse as a result of nuclear-related sanctions* (unlikely though this outcome is), the Chinese would have to deal with a flood of desperate refugees. No fun at all.
Russia, for its part, frankly couldn’t care less what Kim does with his reactors, as long as it gets access to Rajin port, a firm deal on the Transsiberian railway and an opportunity for Putin to look like an elder statesman by finally breaking Kim’s isolation in May.
Even Japan has been making friendly noises towards the DPRK of late, with the abductee negotiations effectively functioning as an open door to normalisation of diplomatic relations, a resumption of the North Korea-Japan ferry link, investment in special economic zones (no link for that last one, but it’s reliable scuttlebutt), and all sorts of other goodies.
In short, the only member of the Six Party Talks not currently keen to cosy up to North Korea via a roundabout route is the US, which is still sticking to its guns and demanding some sort of credible denuclearisation gesture before the talks can recommence, a condition that is – obviously – entirely unacceptable to the North Koreans, who have insisted since G.W. Bush’s Axis of Evil episode that they need nuclear weapons to protect themselves from US threats.
Of course, the other parties want denuclearisation too, in a vague, Amazon-wish-list sort of way, but it’s not the point of national pride that it has become for the US. They’ve shown themselves more than willing to compromise on the issue.
But didn’t South Korea and Russia agree that denuclearisation was key?
Well, yes. If the US had insisted that they wouldn’t return to the table until Hwang Pyong-So had personally kissed Seth Rogen’s backside in the middle of Madison Square Garden they’d probably have nodded in grave agreement to that too. After all, polite agreement costs nothing. Why kick up a fuss? Just agree to whatever America wants and go on exactly as before with your DPRK-cooperation projects. It’s the Asian diplomatic way!
(A Chinese-American friend regularly travels around Asia in an official capacity. On the first day of any visit, when the locals believe him to be Chinese, they go out of their way to make sure that he knows how much they agree with China’s positions on everything. By the second day they have discovered that he is a US citizen. They spend the second day explaining that they agree with America’s positions on everything…)
Of course, while the DPRK was a long-term international pariah, the situation was relatively stable and both Americans and North Koreans could use the other as a target for a little rabble-rousing sabre-rattling every now and then without any real-world consequences.
The danger now, however, is that the US’s hard line position will effectively ‘include it out’ of any say in the form and directions that North Korea’s incipient glasnost may take.
*Yes, the sanctions are by-and-large nuke related, with a few bilateral measures taken in retaliation for specific acts of aggression, such as the sinking of the Cheonan. They have nothing to do with the other big North Korea issue: human rights. Of course, it’s perfectly reasonable to argue that North Korea should be treated with contempt by all civilised nations on account of its internal repression and that the proposed ICC case against Kim Jong-Un can’t come too soon. The problem with that is that the best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. If we were going to take action against North Korea on human rights we should have done it when Kim Jong-Il was starving his people, or Kim Il-Sung imprisoning them by the thousand, not when the country has finally started to show some encouraging signs of opening up.