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Proceed with Open Mind on Korean Nuclear Issue
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By Tao Wenzhao

On October 14, the 15 members of the United Nations Security Council unanimously voted in favor of Resolution 1718, which condemns North Korea's nuclear test, imposes sanctions on North Korea in certain fields, and demands that North Korea abandon its nuclear bid and unconditionally return to the six-party negotiating table.

This is a clear, no-nonsense signal sent by the international community to North Korea.

In the joint statement produced by the fourth round of six-party talks in September 2005, North Korea pledged to abandon its attempt at acquiring nuclear weapons and relinquish its existing nuclear facilities. The United States, for its part, committed to guaranteeing North Korea's security. All parties involved also stated that they would respect North Korea's right to peaceful nuclear energy and agreed to discuss the question of providing light-water reactors to North Korea at the appropriate time.

Looking back at the statement now, one cannot but feel all the more keenly how valuable these pledges were.

Different interpretations of the joint statement arise primarily from one question: When is North Korea supposed to give up its pursuit of nuclear weapons?

The United States' interpretation is that North Korea should immediately provide a list to the participating countries of the six-party negotiations that illustrates clearly its nuclear-weapon projects and facilities and set about dismantling them. This process, according to Washington' calculation, takes three years.

At the same time, South Korea is supposed to make preparations for transmitting electricity to North Korea, which also needs three years. Three years later, North Korea should abandon its nuclear weapons and facilities and open to inspection. Only after that can the issue of providing light-water reactors to the North Korea become the agenda.

All this, however, is Washington's unilateral wish.

North Korea's understanding of the joint statement is that the question of light-water reactors should be discussed in the next round of six-party talks so as to demonstrate the sincerity of the United States in resolving the Korean nuclear issue peacefully. Indeed, North Korea made the demand as soon as the fifth round of six-party negotiations began in early November of 2005.

Such a wide difference in understanding of the joint statement, which is largely a framework in principle, indicates that detailed rules for its enforcement must be worked out.

Despite the joint statement, North Korea found that its situation was going from bad to worse.

Under pressure from Washington, for example, the Macao-based Banco Delta Asia froze the North Korea's account in September 2005, which dealt a telling economic blow.

One of a very few connections between North Korea and the outside world, the bank account was a vital financial window through which aid provided by the international community was remitted to North Korea. Although the account freeze directly involves only a US$24 million loss for North Korea, its actual direct and indirect losses could reach US$2 billion. Coming while North Korea was already caught in financial straits, the move was like rubbing salt in its wounds.

North Korea has ever been pushing the United States to stop the "financial sanctions," saying that it would return to the six-party talks shortly after this was done. The United States, however, claimed that the move was "law enforcement," not "financial sanctions." North Korea pressed for its case repeatedly, but to no avail.

It was against this backdrop that North Korea conducted a missile test in July. But the test backfired, with the Daepudong II missile crashing into the sea 30 seconds after its launch. Barely three months after the embarrassing missile mishap, North Korea conducted a nuclear test that has drawn universal condemnation.

The nuke test, viewed in this context, does not necessarily mean that North Korea has broken with the six-party negotiations altogether. To this author, the test seems to show that Pyongyang is trying to strengthen its bargaining position at the negotiating table. In fact, North Korea stated in the wake of the nuclear test that it is ready to return to the six-party talks on the condition that the United States drops the sanctions.

It is no secret that different schools of opinion inside the US Government contend with each other. The hawks, for example, were opposed to including "light-water reactors" into the six-party joint statement in the first place. After the statement was signed, they insisted that no new concessions be made to North Korea. In general, the hawks are pessimistic about the peaceful settlement of the Korean nuclear issue.

The hawkish opinion, however, does not mirror the mainstream of US policy in this regard. US President George W. Bush, for instance, stated time and again after the North Korea's nuclear test that the US Government still considers the six-party talks to be the best way to resolve the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue.

Washington has no other choice but to seek a peaceful means for resolving the Korean nuclear issue. The United States is bogged down deep in the quagmire of Iraq, and there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel. Moreover, Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mohammed Omar are still at large and terrorist groups threaten to attack US targets from time to time - to say nothing of Iran's nuclear bid compounding matters. All these are restraining factors.

Among other participants in the six-party talks, China, South Korea and Russia have made it clear that they are opposed to resolving the Korean nuclear issue by force. The Chinese Government, while condemning the test, has been appealing for the parties involved to exercise restraint and keep calm in order to avoid rash actions that could lead to an escalation of the crisis and cause the situation to get out of control.

In view of all this, military means can be ruled out in defusing the crisis.

In the wake of the North Korea's nuclear test, the United States and Japan submitted their draft resolution to the Security Council, pressing for sanctions against North Korea. The Chinese side made suggestions on a revision of the draft, and the Security Council members had serious discussions about the resolution in the following days until the formal resolution eventually was passed.

If one compares the final resolution with the US-Japanese draft, one finds outstanding differences in three categories.

First, the sanctions become less harsh. The US-Japan draft includes air and maritime blockades and an arms embargo. In the formal resolution, the blockade has been stricken from the text and the arms embargo has been limited to weapons of mass destruction such as nuclear weapons and missiles.

Second, the US-Japan draft cited the seventh chapter of the United Nations Charter, which refers to the means to deal with aggression and acts threatening peace, implying that force could be used. The final resolution, however, quotes the 41st article in the seventh chapter, stating that means other than force will be employed, excluding the possibility of using force.

Third, the resolution also makes it clear that readjustments would be made in response to the North Korea's compliance with the resolution, stating that sanctions could be suspended or dropped depending on future developments. This indicates that the international community intends to press North Korea to return to the negotiating table, instead of forcing it into a deadly corner.

It can be said that the UN resolution conveys clear-cut, firm, prudent and appropriately toned messages and is expected to exercise positive influence on the future development of the Korean nuclear issue.

The author is a researcher with the Institute of American Studies under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

(China Daily October 18, 2006)


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