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Focus: Ensuring a Nuclear-free Korean Peninsula

by Zhang Tuosheng

On the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue, China and the US have interests that sometimes overlap and at other times diverge. Opportunities and challenges co-exist. As of now, common interests and cooperation have been the main course, which have worked to strengthen bilateral ties.

However, completely resolving the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue is a long and arduous process, and there are many unknown variables. This issue has great significance for the future of Sino-US relations if both sides continue to cooperate and prevent differences from widening.


Current crisis


Both the US and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) adopted an unflinching attitude when the crisis first broke in October 2002. Both demanded that the other side give in on key issues. As a result, it quickly evolved into a crisis of global magnitude and attracted worrying eyes of international observers.


A glimmer of hope dawned in the summer when joint endeavors made it possible for the April three-party talks involving the US, the DPRK and China and the August six-party talks attended by South Korea, Japan and Russia in addition to the original three. For a while, the DPRK swore off any more of these negotiations, but it soon changed its mind, which means the talks will go on.


The turnaround should be attributed to the flexibility that both the US and the DPRK have shown in their attitudes. The US, with its gnawing headache in the Middle East, especially Iraq, and an election year around the corner, would be reluctant to take on extra risks on the Korean Peninsula. US President George W. Bush started shifting his policies towards Secretary of State Colin Powell's moderates who are negotiation-oriented. The DPRK, for its part, faces strong pressure from international anti-nuclear groups. Although it holds dear the nuclear leverage in its hand after the US invasion of Iraq, it still has not given up hope of a US security assurance in exchange for forgoing its nuclear agenda.


China's intervention has played a significant role. From China's standpoint, nuclear weapons or the breakouts of skirmishes or war on the peninsula will severely damage its security interests. The crisis, which was more ominous than the one in 1994, required action from China. Besides, South Korea, Japan and Russia also chipped in to calm the raging waves.


In the aftermath of the six-way talks, the US and the DPRK have shown restraint and avoided further provocation. This was obvious when there was no inflammatory action by the DPRK on its National Day -- September 9 -- as many had feared. When the Korean Energy Development Organization (KEDO) suspended the construction of the light water reactor, the DPRK did not react strongly. As it is, all parties, including the US and the DPRK, are preparing for the next round of talks, pushing the issue onto a path of peaceful solution.


Six-party talks


The six-party talks are a great leap in the direction of peaceful dialogue and solution. They signal a window of opportunity for a major shift. Though the talks yielded limited results instead of a joint communique expected by many countries, the achievements were by no means negligible:


It started a multi-party dialogue, and within the framework, direct communication between the US and the DPRK; most parties tend to approve multi-phases of progress and coordination among all the parties; peaceful dialogue is the consensus; the DPRK indicates its willingness to abandon its nuclear program; and the US has touched upon the issue of security assurance for the DPRK. It should be clear that if the talks continue they will be more fruitful, in the form of pressure not only upon the peninsula's nuclear development, but also upon hawks in the US.


How to turn the consensus from this round of talks into actionable measures? That's the urgent task. A basic proposal acceptable to all six nations should be fleshed out so that discussion can be held according to the outline. The second round of talks should focus on the abandonment of the nuclear program by the DPRK and the provision of security assurance by the US, while leaving all other issues to later negotiations. In addition, the preliminary solutions based on the above proposals should be fair and equitable, and in the principle of simultaneous action or coordinated steps. Prior to the meeting, the US and the DPRK could simultaneously make verbal promises, on which all parties can reach agreement during the meeting on action that can be coordinated during the first phase.


To make the new round happen, multi-party diplomacy in various forms and combinations took place as soon as the first round ended. China continues to mediate to bring everyone to the negotiation table. In addition to senior Foreign Ministry officials' shuttle diplomacy, the October visit to the DPRK by Wu Bangguo, chairman of the Chinese National People's Congress, and the December visit to the US by Premier Wen Jiabao, had the nuclear issue and the six-party talks high on their agendas. The intensity of exertion of Chinese efforts has been unprecedented.


With everyone on board, preparation is under way: President Bush has made it known to be willing to provide multilateral and written assurance of security to the DPRK; the DPRK has softened its demand for unilateral assurance from the US and will consider multilateral assurance if circumstances prove to be right; the DPRK claims that it will propose a new package of solutions in the next round, with its Foreign Ministry spokesperson's December 9 proposal about the first phase of freezing its nuclear program in exchange of corresponding US action as an important test in the process of formulating new measures; the US revealed that it would present its joint solutions with South Korea and Japan and has finished a draft and sent it to China; a relevant country is drafting a joint communique that can be released at the finish of the new talks; China's suggestion of a regular work team that handles administrative affairs even during hiatus of the talks has been well received; all sides have expressed willingness for the second round...


However, the road to the second round is not smooth because the DPRK-US gap is still a gaping hole. Their differences centre on two points: First, the DPRK believes in the principle of "simultaneous action" in resolving the Korean Peninsula nuclear crisis and obtaining security assurance from the US. To that end, the first step can be the freezing of the nuclear program on the part of the DPRK and removal of the DPRK from the list of countries that support terrorism and removal of economic sanctions imposed on the DPRK on the part of the US. The US has generally bought into the principle of "coordination and consensus", but it does not equate it with the "simultaneous action" principle. Instead, in the general arrangement of solutions, it insists that the DPRK comes forward to abandon its nuclear development plan and take concrete actions before the US considers a written assurance and economic aid.


When it comes to the assurance, the DPRK prefers "2+4", which means the US makes the pledge first, to be joined by the other four nations in a second phase. The US, on the other hand, sticks with "1+5", meaning all five nations make a joint pledge to the DPRK. If there is no compromise on these fronts, new talks are unlikely by the end of 2003.


The ball is in the US hands right now. The DPRK, as the weaker party, has demonstrated more flexibility recently, whereas the US has been constrained in policy-making by internal forces, leading to vacillations. If the US wants an earlier start to continued talks with substantial results, it should adopt pragmatic and flexible policies.


Solutions from six-party talks should help build up a mechanism for peace on the Korean Peninsula. This will take multiple rounds of talks and continued common efforts from all parties. To reach that goal, the most important is the political will to resolve issues through peaceful dialogue. When that is done, on-site inspection and other measures can be achieved through endeavors.


There are three modes of solutions for maintaining nuclear-free status for nuclear threshold nations, with South Africa and Iraq at two extremes and Iran somewhere in the middle. The Korean Peninsula should not be handled like Iraq. In the 1990s when security threats, either domestic or global, receded, South Africa completely ditched its secret nuclear program, a choice that the international community should seriously explore. Nations involved in the six-party talks should be confident that their endeavors will make the Korean Peninsula nuclear-free.


Common ground and divergence


A peaceful resolution of the crisis will bring benefits to both China and the US in many ways (See box).


Although China and the US do not necessarily see eye to eye on all the issues or approaches to resolving them, the US government's support of the dialogue has increased the area where interests of China and the US converge. On top of that, the US support of China's role as an intermediary has lessened China's worry in this capacity. If things go in that direction, the six-party talks and Sino-US relations will get a shot in the arm.


Positive signs notwithstanding, there are always forces inside the US that brush aside or oppose peaceful dialogue as the right approach. In their minds, pressure on the DPRK, or even military action, is the most effective means and can bring about a regime change inside the DPRK. Dialogue is only a tool for procrastination or expediency. They also harbor doubts about China's function.


If these forces take the upper hand in the US, the chasm in Sino-US relations will widen. US-DPRK hostilities will also deepen, making it much harder to reach agreement of any kind. When both the US and the DPRK display a certain degree of adroitness, will either side take it as a weakness of the other, the thinking of which may result in more bargaining for unilateral gains? If either side loses patience or adopts policies of non-compromise or tough-guy stance, the situation may revert to the old days of antagonism and sow the seeds for conflict and even war. Should that arise, Sino-US relations will suffer.


Both China and the US should work hard to prevent that from happening. Under no circumstances will China change its positions that,


a) the Korean Peninsula should be nuclear-free;


b) war should be averted at all cost and military action unauthorized by the UN be opposed;


c) any actions, by either the US or the DPRK, that will exacerbate the antagonism and are not conducive to peaceful solution will be opposed, and any moves that will help maintain the nuclear-free status and peace and stability on the peninsula will be supported by China.


Benefits of resolution


A peaceful resolution of the Korean Peninsula nuclear crisis will bring benefits to both China and the US:


1. The international non-proliferation mechanism will be strengthened.


2. War or other military hostilities can be avoided.


3. The last cold-war zone will be removed.


4. A precedent will be set for security assurance of smaller nations and resolutions of international conflict. A multilateral security system for Northeast Asia may be established.


5. Conditions will be created for DPRK to embrace full-scale reform and opening-up.


6. Stability and cooperation will be promoted among the major powers of East Asia.


7. It will benefit Sino-US strategic cooperation.


(The author Zhang Tuosheng is director of the Department of Research at the China Foundation for International and Strategic Studies.)


(China Daily December 18, 2003)

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