The Dance of the Diplomats
Michael Richardson (Security Specialist at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore)
The dance of diplomacy is intensifying, amid expectations that talks with North Korea will resume next month on ending its nuclear-weapons programme. Trying to get the key partners into step will be one of the main goals when Asian and Pacific leaders meet in Vietnam this weekend.
Annual summits of APEC, the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum, used to focus on trade and investment liberalisation. This year, North Korea is a prime concern following its ballistic missile tests in July and the underground detonation of a nuclear explosive device last month.
Although North Korea is not an APEC member, the other countries in the six-party nuclear negotiations are. The leaders of China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States will be holding a series of meetings to try to align their interests on the Korean Peninsula.
It will not be easy. They all agree that verifiable nuclear disarmament by Pyongyang would be the best outcome. But they differ over how to achieve this end. The US and Japan want to squeeze North Korea with targeted trade and financial sanctions and measures to prevent it from selling nuclear materials and missiles overseas.
However, China, South Korea and Russia say that diplomacy is the preferable way forward. Since they are North Korea's immediate neighbours - and China and South Korea are its main sources of trade, aid and investment - their policy approach is likely to prevail.
US President George W. Bush is in no position now to protest too loudly. He is widely seen in Asia as a political lame duck after voters at home handed control of Congress to the Democrats. This will help China, which hosts the six-party talks, to lure North Korea back to the negotiating table. But, after unprecedented pressure from Beijing, all Pyongyang has agreed to do is rejoin the talks, not disarm. North Korea wants US sanctions lifted as a first step, to be followed by direct, bilateral negotiations with Washington.
Even a weakened Mr Bush is unlikely to reward what it has long said is intolerable behaviour by Pyongyang. The US has agreed to deal with North Korea only in a working group to be set up within the framework of the six-party talks. Nor has it made any commitments on ending sanctions.
So the stage is set for a continuing charade. North Korea can play for time while continuing to build more nuclear bombs, making them small enough to fit on its long-range missiles. By agreeing to keep talking, Pyongyang will prevent the UN Security Council from effectively enforcing, let alone strengthening, the North Korean sanctions resolution it passed last month. It will also keep a wedge between the hardliners - Japan and the US - and the more conciliatory China, South Korea and Russia.
Sham negotiations with North Korea will avoid an immediate crisis that none of its five negotiating partners wants. But the consequences of appeasement will be unpredictable, and probably dangerous. Iran will be emboldened to continue developing nuclear weapons. Other countries, including Japan, will follow, either by acquiring atomic arms or ensuring that they can do so quickly.
In this world of multiplying nuclear states, preventing the spread of mass destruction materials and technology will become much more difficult. As a result, the risk of a terrorist Armageddon will rise.
(Originally appeared in the November 17, 2006 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, reproduced here with permission.)