Unlike the Congress and President Barack Obama, the U.S. and North Korean envoys did not face an immediate deadline, after which the second Korean War would break out. Nonetheless, the specter of conflict hangs over the Korean peninsula with implications that go well beyond any suffering inflicted by the U.S. going into default.
The familiar scenario of elevated hopes followed by disappointment played out to perfection in the meetings between the U.S. man on North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, and North Korea’s vice foreign minister, Kim Kye-Gwan, a veteran of years of stop-go talks on the topic of North Korea’s nukes. After the Americans and North Koreans were done yakking past each other, the future of the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program — the ostensible reason for the negotiations — still hung in the balance.
Clearly, envoys took well-known positions that offered no reason to believe the North would give up its nukes. The impossibility of bridging the impasse became obvious when North and South Korea rehashed their oft-stated positions in statements and comments before and during the talks.
North Korea, for instance, reiterated its customary demand for a peace treaty to replace the armistice signed in Panmunjom in July 1953, accusing the U.S. of hypocrisy and worse for modernizing its nuclear arsenal. The U.S. called for North Korea to meet agreements reached in 2007 under which the North would give up its entire nuclear program in return for vast quantities of aid, mostly energy that is direly needed to rev up the North’s failed economy.
Not surprisingly, South Korean leaders were extremely uneasy about the U.S. talking to North Korea — though South Korea’s chief North Korea negotiator, Wi Sung-Lac, sat down with North Korea’s nuclear negotiator, Ri Yong-Ho, in July on the idyllic Indonesia island of Bali during a regional forum of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Ri, relatively new to the job, was clearly deputized to set the stage for Kim’s mission to New York, and the talks in Bali were seen as a “breakthrough” of sorts since the two Koreas had not met to discuss the nuclear issue since the last six-party talks were held in Beijing in December 2008.
While the North Korea-U.S. talks ended with no announcement of any results, no one has ruled out the possibility that dialogue between the U.S. and North Korea might eventually lead to a resumption of the full six-party talks, hosted by China and including Russia and Japan as well as the U.S. and the two Koreas.
Even if the six-party talks resume, however, its unlikely North Korea has any intention of voluntarily withdrawing from the elite club of nuclear-armed nations. Skepticism has to be the watchword considering that North Korea test-fired missiles and conducted its second nuclear test in May 2009, just five months after the breakdown of the six-party process.
An overwhelming sense of futility, more than concerns about South Korean sensitivities, gives U.S. policymakers pause as they wonder if they can ever coax North Korea into agreement at a time when the North is desperately looking for aid after a harsh winter. North Korea, it’s assumed, wants to have all the food it can get for observances next April of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-Sung, who died in 1994 after bequeathing power to his third son, Kim Jong-Il.
The whole issue of bringing North Korea to terms, important though it may seem, could not have been further from the minds of American leaders, from Obama to his friends and foes in the Congress, during the debate on the budget. After a flurry of stories for a day or two, the topic of a real deal with North Korea faded completely from the media and the American consciousness.
The sense during the debate on the American budget was that the U.S. would not cut off funds for wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, and for forces elsewhere, including 28,500 troops in South Korea, but the repercussions of the impasse here in Washington had disturbing implications for the ability of the U.S. to respond militarily anywhere.
For all their show of patriotic American values, the enthusiasm of American conservatives for the defense of South Korea in the dreaded event of a second Korean War would be questionable.
Right-wing think tankers may talk big in conferences in Seoul, urging a hard line against North Korea, but a strong streak of isolationism has always permeated the outlook of American conservatives — and the depth of their dedication is far from certain. Many of them would rather keep hands-off conflict overseas.
A fact of American history over the past century is that Democratic governments have been in power at the outset of every major conflict from World War I through World War II to Korea and Vietnam. At the same time, lest anyone forget, conservative Republican presidents endorsed the formulas that finally ended the Korean and Vietnam wars — the former in a stalemate, the latter in defeat.
Dwight Eisenhower, the victorious World War II general, was elected president in 1952 on the pledge, “I shall go to Korea,” to end the Korean War. Richard Nixon, the California schemer who’d been Eisenhower’s vice president and then lost to John Fitzgerald Kennedy in 1960, got elected president in 1968 in an atmosphere of revulsion over the U.S. in Vietnam. Re-elected four years later, he endorsed the “Paris Peace” of January 1973, negotiated by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and North Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho, that provided the framework for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam — and the defeat on April 30, 1975, of the U.S.-backed Saigon regime.
Such memories, though, never surfaced in the debate among American politicians consumed by the overwhelmingly negative figures of an economy and a government that can no longer throw its money and weight around with the impunity of the good old days. Against this background, North Korea’s eagerness to talk made great sense. While avoiding compromises on their nukes, the North Koreans still hope to wangle food aid from the U.S., and maybe South Korea too, while the U.S. heads off a clash that no one in Washington cares to imagine.
Picking up on American-style cliches, Kim Kye-Gwan said not only that the New York talks were “constructive and business-like” — but also that he would “try to continue momentum down the road.” Like the debate on the American budget, the negotiations on North Korea promise to keep going, in fit and starts, with no happy ending in sight.