The world’s most bizarre leader, North Korea’s Kim Jong Il, has just left Beijing. There is one thing we can be sure of: he and his Chinese hosts were up to no good. That is usually the case when they get together. Now, however, their scheming is particularly threatening to the United States. And if we can judge from recent public statements, the Obama administration will fall for their latest trap.
What’s going on? Thursday, sources in Beijing report that Chairman Kim has agreed to return to the China-sponsored six-party nuclear talks. The talks—also involving the U.S., Japan, Russia, and South Korea—began in August 2003 and have not resulted in the “denuclearization” of the North, their purpose.
Instead, Beijing has used the negotiations to obtain assistance from the international community for Pyongyang and to give the North Koreans time, the one thing they needed most to make themselves a threat to global stability. While the talks dragged on, the North, among other things, staged its first detonation of a nuclear device—in October 2006—and tested long-range missiles. Moreover, Pyongyang, during the negotiations, sold nuclear weapons technology to Iran.
The last round of the six-party talks was held in December 2008. Last year, in April, Pyongyang announced its withdrawal from the multilateral discussions by declaring it would “never” participate again. The North’s strategy has been to gain acceptance as a nuclear weapons state by preventing the restarting of disarmament negotiations.
So why should Kim agree to the resumption of the Beijing talks now? The sinking of the Cheonan, a South Korean frigate, on March 26 seems to be central to his decision-making. Forensic evidence shows that a torpedo destroyed the vessel, which was in South Korean waters close to the North at the time of the incident. The loss of 46 sailors has outraged the South’s military and most of the country’s citizens, who have demanded retribution against Pyongyang, the only possible perpetrator. In reaction, the Foreign Ministry in Seoul has announced there can be no resumption of the six-party talks until the Cheonan matter is resolved. It is, understandably, politically impossible for the South Korean government to engage in any process that will result in additional aid for Kim’s Korea.
Yet the Obama administration has been pressing precisely for that, even after the sinking of the 1,200-ton Cheonan. “We of course face a set of uncertainties in the short-term as we await the results of the investigation of the sinking of the South Korean naval vessel,” said Stephen Bosworth, Washington’s special envoy on North Korea, late last month. “But looking beyond that I think that there is reason to believe that multilateral engagement remains the essential condition for making progress on greater stability, denuclearization, peace and prosperity on the Korean peninsula.”
Actually, there is no reason to believe any of that. Multilateral engagement has, unfortunately, made matters worse in North Asia during both the Clinton and Bush administrations. Bosworth may not want to hear this, but more than six decades has demonstrated that the essential condition for making real progress on the Korean peninsula is the abolition of the North Korean state.
Nonetheless, Washington continues to put its faith in multilateral diplomacy—in other words, continues to outsource its foreign policy to our adversary’s only friend, Beijing. Yet, despite all the optimism in American diplomatic circles about obtaining China’s cooperation, Chinese officials continue to support Mr. Kim’s regime. And now both Beijing and Pyongyang are, jointly, executing a new strategy. By announcing North Korea’s agreement to return to the six-party talks, they can obtain additional food and other material assistance from the international community, blunt any South Korean diplomatic offensive to punish Kim for sinking the Cheonan, and split Seoul away from Washington due to their differing views on continued nuclear negotiations.
The Obama administration is bound to fall for the ploy as it has made the resumption of the six-party talks a high priority. The talks, as we have learned by now, have almost no chance of succeeding. But we are now talking about the talks—and alienating our staunch ally in the region—so that we can please Beijing and its communist ally.
Gordon G. Chang is the author of "Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World." He writes a weekly column at Forbes.com.
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Gordon G. Chang is a senior policy fellow of the American Conservative Union Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang.