Talking to Kim Jong-Un: South of the border, no one is spoiling for a fight

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By Donald Kirk,

Amid much fanfare, North Korea has advanced to the brink of the dreaded Second Korean War.

Now the question is whether there’s a face-saving way to bring about dialogue. Can’t North Korea, at some stage, declare a rhetorical victory and go into negotiations?

South Koreans demonstrate for peace talks.
South Koreans demonstrate for peace talks.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in his go-around through all three major Northeast Asian capitals, beginning a week ago in Seoul, then moving on to Beijing and Tokyo, intimated it that it hardly matters how, where or in what format the talks are held. He did say, however, that North Korea has to move toward giving up its nuclear program.

The critical word there is how far North Korea has to move. North Korea has said it will never give up its nukes despite agreements reached in 2007 that seemed to have provided specific conditions for doing just that. We would be deluding ourselves if we thought North Korea would ever abandon the program.

That does not mean, however, that talks, or talks about talks, cannot begin. Nor does it mean that North Korea has to go on holding a nuclear club over the region – even over the United States if we are to believe some of the threats about strikes at the White House and Pentagon.

At the same time, the U.S. is building up its own military presence. Wasn’t it in response to North Korea’s terrible threats that the U.S. deployed counter-missile missiles to Guam and elsewhere in the region? And wasn’t it to show off U.S. power in the wake of the threats that a pair of B2 Stealth bomb flew round-trip, without landing, from their base in Missouri, dumping their dummy bombs into the sea?

The specter of rising U.S. military power so close to China’s doorstep should help to convince the Chinese of the need for North Korea to scale down the rhetoric. As long as North Korea emits shrill daily diatribes, the U.S. has every excuse to try to defend itself.

China’s defense ministry, in its annual white paper, held the U.S. responsible for escalating suspicion and hatred among nations on the periphery of the Chinese mainland from Vietnam to Japan. North Korea, by this logic, is giving the U.S. the perfect excuse to plant still more fancy hardware on its Asian bases.

More than ever, however, the United States is emphatically hitting the ball into China’s court, saying the Chinese hold the key to restraining North Korea’s impetuous heir to power, Kim Jong-Un. Kerry in his stopover in Beijing pleaded with Chinese leaders to lean on the North Koreans, who count on China for their survival.

China, after all, is the source of 80 percent of North Korea’s fuel – most of the rest coming from coal mined in the North – and half its food. Would China not appear to have the ultimate say over North Korea, a protectorate in a real sense of the word?

Not exactly. China’s top priority remains that of peace and stability. By maintaining the status quo, China has the best of both halves of the bifurcated Korean nation. China, as South Korea’s biggest trading partner, enjoys a sizeable balance of trade with the South and also counts on South Korea for investment and expertise.

China earns far less from North Korea – perhaps nothing in view of bills owed for all that fuel and food – but does have a stake in North Korea’s mineral riches. China jointly operates companies with North Korea that are tapping into North Korean mines for natural resources including gold and uranium and much else that’s far from fully exploited or even known.

Under these circumstances, the Chinese would doubtless prefer to return to the role of host of six-party talks that would probably go nowhere in practical achievements but would at least head off a conflict that could turn into a regional war.

There’s no telling how such a war would end. China would not want U.S. or U.S.-backed South Korean forces rampaging up to its Yalu and Tumen river borders with North Korea. The U.S. would have to go through a huge political debate before committing hundreds of thousands of troops as it did during the Korean and Vietnam wars.

President Park Geun-Hye is talking tough about the need to counterattack if North Korea strikes as it did against a naval vessel and a small island in the Yellow Sea in 2010 with a loss of 50 lives. She would prefer, however, to go the negotiating route – laborious and unproductive though that might be.

The vast majority of South Koreans feel the same way. On the streets of Seoul, no one is talking about war or looking for bomb shelters. Armageddon, Koreans believe, is not at hand. The mood is all for peace and dialogue. The question remains where, how, on what terms and to what end.

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