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Softer US Approach to N Korea
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By Wang Fan

With the new round of the six-party talks opening in Beijing Monday, one of the major changes worth analyzing is the Bush administration's rethinking of its hard-line diplomacy.

Since the fifth round of talks on the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue reached the landmark agreement on February 13, the United States and North Korea have held several rounds of fruitful bilateral talks.

North Korea has said that it will comply with the guiding principles of the 2/13 Joint Statement and expressed its willingness to return to International Atomic Energy Agency inspection.

Meanwhile, the six-party working groups have begun discussions on specific issues leading to the possible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

This week, the new talks are expected to turn former promises into concrete actions.

This is an encouraging diplomatic achievement following the crisis in Northeast Asia triggered by the North Korea's nuclear test last October.

It is also a diplomatic breakthrough that the United States scored while still struggling in hotspots elsewhere.

On the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue, the United States long evaded its responsibility as the major party concerned. In the past weeks, the United States has taken center stage, engaging in the bilateral financial talks in Berlin and returning with North Korea to the framework set by the six-party talks to push for resolution.

Behind the scurry of diplomatic maneuvers is the fact that the United States finally realizes it alone can loosen the tightly knotted bargaining process.

The Americans favor package deals specific resolutions for specific problems. But Washington is also beginning to realize that step-by-step progress to achieve the ultimate goal a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula works better than demanding a package solution.

From Bill Clinton, who almost signed a peace agreement with North Korea, to George W. Bush, who labeled the country in the axis of evil, from drafting a preemptive strategy to accepting bilateral negotiations and then to agreeing on financial aid, Washington has made dramatic changes in its policy towards Pyongyang.

The US is becoming softer and more patient. The efforts by the other five countries North Korea, the Republic of Korea, China, Japan and Russia cannot be ignored, but the shift in US policy requires further analysis.

The policy change in Washington is closely related to its domestic politics, its Middle East policy, and the restructuring of its global strategy.

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has been trying to maintain the status quo in Northeast Asia, one of its strategic frontiers. This strategy has been based on two premises: Washington should dominate the status quo or any change; and no regional power should be allowed to challenge US interests in the region. With these two premises, the US can play to the full its role as mediator.

In the Middle East, the United States is facing mounting pressure. The ultimate goal of the United States in its Middle East blueprint is to control the region. To realize this, it must resolve problems in both Iraq and Iran.

However, US forces are bogged down in Iraq, where bombing and killing are daily occurrences. As for the Iranian nuclear issue, it involves arm-wrestling not just between Washington and Teheran but also among other big powers.

In a recent speech, Russian President Vladimir Putin criticized the United States for its overuse of military force, saying Russia would expand its energy cooperation with Iran or even Saudi Arabia.

It is clear that the Middle East issues are more complex than the North Korea issue, and urgently need solutions.

Therefore, balanced against its global strategy, the United States is taking a softer stance in Northeast Asia, pinning high hopes on the new policy.

Meanwhile, the United States has recognized China's ability to stop nuclear proliferation in Northeast Asia and found common ground in ensuring stability in the region. From the positive role that China has played in the six-party talks, Beijing earned the trust of Washington. The US is now starting to view China as contributor to regional peace rather than as a troublemaker.

Washington has also realized the importance of establishing negotiation mechanisms in dealing with some hot issues.

Negotiating within the six-party talks reflects the change in the Bush administration's rethinking of its hard-line North Korea policy.

With progress made and a resolution in sight, the six-party talks are seen as not just the best way but the only way to solve the North Korea nuclear issue. This will also make Washington rethink its strategy in other regions.

Meanwhile, North Korea also has come to realize the necessity of changing its own hard-line policy. Pyongyang has said that it would put economic development at the top of the agenda. North Korea wanted guaranteed security to develop its economy, but for a long time got no response from the United States.

As a result, it chose to test a nuclear device to get US attention. Now, Washington is finally looking eastward. So the new round of talks could be a good opportunity to achieve progress, strategically or technically.

In the United States, the Democratic Party continues to gain momentum since taking control of Congress. With anti-war Democratic presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton starting their White House campaigns and the Democratic-controlled Congress passing a pile of anti-war bills, the Bush administration is facing its biggest challenge.

From the Republican point of view, some progress in Northeast Asia could offset the pressure from Iraq and domestic issues before the Republican Party chooses its own presidential candidate.

However, given the severe mistrust between Washington and Pyongyang, it will take time and great effort to achieve concrete results.

The author is associate professor at the Research Institute of International Relations, China Foreign Affairs University.

(China Daily March 20, 2007)

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