Koreans are famous for their hospitality. Dinner parties in Korea lavish guests with multiple delicious courses. The pending inter-Korean summit has generated much debate among politicians and security analysts about what and how many courses to serve at this momentous party.
The courses may include a peace treaty, security assurances, denuclearization, economic aid, energy assistance, and unification.
Perhaps the most important issue is what to offer first. The ordering of two courses has presented President Roh Moo-hyun with a difficult decision.
That is, should he focus on a peace treaty ahead of substantial progress on denuclearization? In public statements last week, Roh indicated that he wanted to take denuclearization off the official agenda to not spoil Kim Jong-il’s appetite.
The shadow that casts over the summit is an uninvited guest: the United States. The position of the U.S. is clear: denuclearization must occur before a meaningful peace treaty can be negotiated.
From the U.S. perspective and from the perspective of many South Korean politicians, how can a summit partner achieve peace if it is holding nuclear arms to the head of the partner?
From North Korea’s perspective, they will not give up weaponry or join a peace treaty if it feels its security is threatened.
Recently, progress is being made in the six-party talks to move toward disablement of the Yongbyon nuclear facility and an accounting of the North’s complete nuclear weapons programs, including the uranium enrichment program.
Also, more importantly for North Korea, the United States is talking seriously about security assurances. When I was in Seoul in January 2005, I faced the uncomfortable prospect of explaining to my gracious Korean hosts the reasoning behind U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s statement about North Korea as an outpost of “tyranny.”
Much has changed in the U.S. position in two years. President George W. Bush has toned down harsh rhetoric aimed at Kim Jong-il and has signaled his support of security assurances.
Rice has given Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, an adept diplomat and a former U.S. ambassador to the ROK, maneuvering room to work out the latest agreement with the DPRK.
Looming over the summit and the six-party talks is a news story that North Korea might be assisting Syria with a nuclear installation. This story has sparked concern among some Democrats in Washington that Bush administration hardliners are trying to undermine the six-party talks.
Let’s not jump to conclusions with a story that is based on statements from a couple of anonymous Israeli and American officials. It is no secret that North Korea and Syria have close ties going back to the time when Kim Il-sung ruled the DPRK and Hafez al-Assad ruled Syria.
But despite credible evidence of North Korean assistance to Syria’s missile program over many years, the nuclear connection for now is based on allegations.
More facts are needed on the alleged North Korea-Syria nuclear dealings. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) can play a crucial role. According to an official I talked to at the IAEA’s General Conference this week in Vienna, the IAEA is developing greater confidence about the monitoring of the Yongbyon facility.
With respect to Syria, the IAEA should exercise its authority to request a special inspection at any suspect facilities. The Syria story should not unravel the summit or the six-party talks as long as the North remains committed to dismantlement of its nuclear weapons programs.
How will Kim Jong-il treat Roh at the summit? Will Kim show his best hospitality? He will likely want to lobby President Roh to take the message back to the six-party talks that continued denuclearization hinges on security assurances and significant movement toward normalization of relations with the United States.
While Kim now craves attention from the United States, eventually the time will come for the two Koreas to unify.
I was struck by the affinity between North and South Korean brethren when I was in the DPRK as part of a KEDO delegation in November 2000. I remember that North and South Koreans at the meeting left their American and Japanese counterparts behind as they spent an enjoyable night at a karaoke bar.
Karaoke diplomacy can bring the two sides close together. But more hard diplomacy is required before glasses can be raised in the ultimate “geon-bae” or toast that signals peace on the Korean Peninsula.
During the summit, I wish my Korean colleagues would stay focused on the major prize: denuclearization. Once this is achieved, it will remove a major roadblock to the path to a peace treaty and unification.
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