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
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
Meanwhile, the six-party working groups have begun discussions
on specific issues leading to the possible denuclearization of the
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
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
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
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
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
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
The author is associate professor at the Research Institute
of International Relations, China Foreign Affairs
(China Daily March 20, 2007)