August 25, 2003

August 25, 2003 | Commentary on Asia

Nuclear Poker

A TOM Clancy thriller looks ho-hum in comparison to the international intrigue taking place as the United States, Russia, China, the two Koreas and Japan jockey for position in preparation for Wednesday's Six-Party Talks in Beijing.

The talks' purpose: Figure out what to do about North Korea's nuclear weapons program. But it'll be a real diplomatic challenge to keep the focus there as each nation tries to advance items on its own agenda, items that sometimes have little to do with nukes or even North Korea.

Take China. By playing midwife to the talks, Beijing has sought to elevate its status as an international diplomatic powerbroker. Ultimately, Beijing hopes to parlay its role as Six-Party Talks interlocutor into expanded international political clout.

China also hopes to prevent the collapse of the North Korean regime, a buffer state that keeps the Americans below the 38th parallel, far from the Chinese border. And Beijing would like to win the gratitude of wealthy South Korean investors, who help fuel the Chinese economic juggernaut.

The Chinese also shudder at the prospects of more nuclear neighbors: It already has three, and its historical nemesis, Japan, might opt to join the club in response to North Korea's actions. A nuclear Japan means many sleepless Beijing nights.

Japan certainly wants a non-threatening North Korea, whose nukes and missiles are in check. But Tokyo also wants resolution to a dozen or more North Korean abductions of Japanese citizens carried out in the 1970s. (The victims were forced to teach North Korean spies Japanese language and culture.)

This is a red-hot political issue for Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi, who needs progress on this matter before normalizing relations with North Korea. (North Korea stands to receive upwards of $1 billion from Japan as war reparations upon establishment of diplomatic relations.) Tokyo also wants to end brazen North Korean espionage and methamphetamine smuggling into Japan as well.

South Korea needs progress on a political rapprochement with the North. Reconciliation is a priority for South Korean President Roh, whose party has spent billions on courting a reluctant Pyongyang bride.

Russia is more an interloper than anything else, having cut Pyongyang off as a client state after the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union. Participation primarily lets Russian President Vladimir Putin look like an international statesman (even as Chechnya boils endlessly).

For itself, North Korea wants respect - and lots of international aid. (Kim Jong Il's instructions to his negotiators: Show me the money.) Since the Cold War ended, North Korea has become an economic basket case; some 2 million have starved in an avoidable politically-induced famine. With North Korea teetering on the edge of collapse, regime survival is job No. 1 for Kim Jong Il.

In exchange for swearing off its nukes, Pyongyang also wants a non-aggression pact and diplomatic relations with the United States. (With its primo counterfeit American $100 bills, North Korea could build one heck of an embassy on Massachusetts Avenue in D.C.)

For its part, Washington wants an irreversible and verifiable end to North Korea's nuclear programs. The Bush administration is understandably skeptical about North Korea living up to its obligations: We bought promises from Pyongyang under the Clinton administration, only to discover North Korean perfidy (again) last year.

America also wants North Korea to: stop its missile and nuclear proliferation cooperation with Iran; reduce its conventional force threat to South Korea and Japan; and end its political repression, which extinguished 400,000 lives over the last 30 years. (Another 200,000 still languish in political prison camps.)

The participants' wish lists range from the ridiculous to the sublime. But, clearly, the key issue remains North Korea's nukes. The challenge for American diplomats is to keep the other players' ulterior motives from bollixing up potential progress on the pressing nuclear matter. This won't be easy as the whirlwind of issues at play take flight.

As the six nations gather at the table, North Korea will be playing a relatively weak hand. But expect their negotiators to play all their cards - and then some. Observers should expect a fair bit of drama and posturing and are best advised to keep their expectations for the talks modest - if not low - as they watch this real-life international thriller unfold.

Peter Brookes is a senior fellow for National Security Affairs at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Related Issues: Asia

Originally appeared in the New York Post.