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Friday, January 7, 2011     GET REAL

North Korea histrionics lead to talks about talks and an unlikely Seoul-Tokyo alliance

By Donald Kirk

TOKYO — North Korea has stolen the spotlight if not the thunder from United States nuclear envoy Stephen Bosworth's quick trip to Northeast Asian capitals this week with an adroitly timed call for resuming six-party talks on its nukes with "no preconditions."


The North Korean proposal could hardly have been better timed considering that it came right after Bosworth in Seoul got through saying there was no point "in talks for the sake of talks." Then Bosworth was off to Beijing, where he propounded the same message along with the usual plea for China to please rein in its North Korean protectorate.

The Chinese had no trouble impressing on Bosworth their desire to maintain "stability" on the Korean Peninsula — and to agreeing, but that North Korea's possession of nukes was bad. That said, they went right ahead, as Bosworth was wrapping up his Northeast rounds in Tokyo, endorsing North Korea's call.

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The North Korean plea, better described as a demand, may deepen rather than resolve differences between China and North Korea on one side and the U.S., South Korea and Japan on the other. Reconciliationists may see it as in keeping with the North's New Year's editorial yearning to "end confrontation", but it also amounts to rejection of any notion of doing anything about its growing nuclear program.

Oh sure, North Korea is saying, let's sit down and talk and talk while we ask for still more by way of massive aid, beginning with twin nuclear-energy reactors. Those two were promised in the 1994 Geneva framework agreement under which the North did indeed shut down its five-megawatt "experimental" reactor for producing plutonium bombs at its Yongbyon complex. The framework, reached in the midst of another nuclear crisis, was signed by the U.S. and North Korea, South Korea was to have born the U.S. $4-$5 billion cost of the reactors — to have been constructed by South Korea's Doosan Heavy Industries, manufacturer of all the South's own energy reactors.

The Geneva framework blew apart eight years later, leaving the energy reactors never built, after revelations of the North's program for building another reactor, this one for fabricating warheads with highly enriched uranium (HEU). North Korea for several years denied anything to do with HEU, but lately has shown off a nearly completed 20-megawatt uranium reactor to visitors, notably to American physicist Siegfried Hecker, introducing a powerful bargaining tool into whatever new talks finally emerge.

The pressure for resuming six-party talks, last held in Beijing more than two years ago, is so intense that it remains quite possible the parties will again convene for another few rounds of exchanging demands that neither side is prepared to heed. The talks include North and South Korea, the U.S., Japan, China and Russia.

South Korea's opposition Democratic Party, the legacy of the decade of liberal leadership under Kim Dae-Jung, the author of the "Sunshine" policy of reconciliation, and his successor and soul mate, Roh Moo-Hyun, has called for an end to "provocations" — by the conservative President Lee Myung-Bak and is all in favor of more talking, no strings attached. Kim and Roh both died in 2009, but Lee faces hostility for his government's spurning the North's call after Lee said in his New Year's message that he too wanted dialogue.

As Mingi Hyun, research fellow at the Korea Institute for Maritime Strategy, remarked: "People in Korea feel the need to increase cooperation," despite "popular sentiment against it."

There is no doubt, though, the China-North Korea standoff against the U.S., Japan and South Korea will harden as Japan joins calls for North Korea to do something to prove it's acting in good faith in pleading for a return to the table.

Remember, Japan is now led by the Democratic Party of Japan, which drove the long-ruling but calcified Liberal-Democratic Party from power in 2009 on promises to do away with American bases. Japan's Prime Minister Naoto Kan, before the latest conciliatory moves by the North, had already gone back on the idea of getting rid of the American bases on Okinawa despite the opposition of Okinawan residents. The current plan calls for the U.S. to move a Marine air station out of a populated area to a more remote part of Okinawa while other elements transfer to Guam.

Kan took over leadership of his party — and the government — last June when his predecessor, Yukio Hatoyama, had to resign after moderating his view on the bases. He has been increasingly receptive to U.S. forces since the North's artillery barrage on a South Korean island in the Yellow Sea in November that resulted in the deaths of two Marines and two civilians and the sinking of the South Korean ship the Cheonan in March with a loss of 46 lives.

At the same time, President Lee, who as a young student was jailed briefly for leading anti-Japan demonstrations against opening of diplomatic relations between South Korea and Japan in 1965, has encouraged close cooperation with Tokyo in the form of occasional military exercises, most recently off the South Korean port of Pusan.

Implicit is the desire for Japan and South Korea to get over the legacy of 35 years of Japanese colonial rule and decades of animosity and suspicion — and cooperate for mutual defense against the North Korea threat and concerns about China's rising role as the dominant regional power.

Nobody has illusions about a trilateral alliance considering popular sentiment in both countries. South Koreans cannot get over Japan's insistence on its claim to Dokdo, the rocky islets between Korea and Japan that are held by a Korean garrison, and Japan has to worry about any move suggesting renunciation of the post World War II constitution banning participation in conflicts overseas.

Still, Japan and South Korea are likely to come to terms on a deal for sharing equipment, intelligence and know-how, at least during peace time, and they can certainly agree on a similar stand against returning to six-party talks. While Bosworth was in Tokyo, Japan's Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara, standing beside U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington, called for "concrete actions" by the North as a prerequisite for talks.

In a talk in Washington, Maehara also called for North-South Korean dialogue — a proposal that might sound simple but isn't. North Korea would prefer to bypass the South, which would go on demanding apologies and compensation for the Cheonan and island attacks, while confronting the U.S. across the table with its demand for all the aid it can get.

Hideaki Kase, historian and author of numerous books and articles on Japanese military issues, sees the United States as playing the pivotal role against China and the North. "As long as the U.S. is involved," he said, "it's Japan and the U.S. and Korea and the U.S."

He is not sanguine, however, about the aftermath on the Korean Peninsula in the unlikely event that the Seoul government took over the Korean Peninsula after the collapse of the North Korean regime.

South Korea, Kase predicted, would want a united Korea to be a nuclear power — under South Korean control. "That's worrisome," he said. "I don't think we can stand for a Korean peninsula with nuclear weapons."

Returning to immediate reality, however, Japan's biggest-selling newspaper, the conservative Yomiuri Shimbun, reported that Japan and South Korea may sign a military cooperation agreement in several months calling for military cooperation in peacetime despite what it said were "lingering disputes concerning Japan's colonial rule".

The newspaper cited "growing uncertainty in East Asia", notably "increased aggression by China and North Korea," as prompting the view that "enhanced bilateral defense ties are indispensable".

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