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August 30, 2003

The Best Possible Course for North Korea


by Sascha Matuszak

This week the North Koreans and the "coalition" have agreed to talk more and to talk soon. The negotiations had a high note when the DPRK and US reps chewed the fat for a bit in the corner while (assumingly) the other five other delegations pretended not to notice. There wasn't a lot of complaining and/or saber rattling from the two antagonists.

It became clear, however, that the behavior of the US, not the DPRK, is the focus of the talks. The South Koreans, Russians and the Chinese released public statements admonishing the US for being too aggressive and for focusing on near term "regime change." The US is now expected to give a little and discuss a non-aggression pact (as Russia did) after multi-party talks were determined to be the better forum.

John Bolton's speech on the DPRK and its leader resembles the comments we hear coming out of North Korea every now and then when someone doesn't show enough respect. But in a confrontation such as this one, the Big Man taking on the local gun-enthusiast/zealot, what the US does and says is scrutinized much more than the predictably crazy and extreme reactions of the DPRK.

It is decidedly un-American to insist on multi-party talks for conflict resolution. China holds de facto control of the environment and overall atmosphere of the talks as host and closest "friend" of the DPRK the US has historically acted unilaterally and the frequent spats with the UN over missions and projects around the world.

But if the US had sat down face to face, that would have been giving North Korea too many opportunities to embarrass and rattle the Americans, eventually forcing a rash decision and an ultimate "martyr victory" for the North Koreans.

Multi-party talks over time focusing on disarmament and non-aggression is the best possible scenario.

The North Koreans gain respect and are acknowledged by five major nations. The DPRK also holds the ace of spades in its not fully understood but definitely cataclysmic nuclear arsenal. The presence of China, Russia and South Korea could mute American frustration and anger and squeeze out a disarmament/non-aggression pact: exactly what the North Koreans have been demanding the whole time.

The US gets off the hook. With more fires popping up and more lights going out all the time, the US has been fishing around for volunteers. They need foreign investors and UN bureaucracy to help run Iraq and tame Afghanistan; Kurds to fight the Arabs and Turks to control the Kurds; Pakistanis to chase bin-Laden and Indians to check the Pakistanis etc.

With China holding everybody's hand and the other four to provide the framework the US can focus more on what is most important: the dismantling of North Korea's nukes. When the world pushed North Korea onto the stage, regime change began. North Koreans can remain unfathomably broke for only so much longer, now that the DPRK leadership has played all but its last card.

Russia is involved, and these days that's a good thing for a nation that is being perceived by the world as having "failed" the transition from Cold War juggernaut to sleek powerhouse. Having said that, Russia still demands (and receives) respect as a major power with considerable influence over the many unstable nations that spun out of the old USSR and the end of the Cold War.

South Korea has voiced its concern in the past over a lack of game time. The fact is South Korea is useful as an interpreter of North Korean words and actions and an insight into their thoughts. South Korea's role is to advise the actors, not be one. As long as war is averted, who cares? And the fact that everybody has sat down for the first time is a good sign now South Korea can actually participate, as advice is useless if there is nothing to act upon or discuss.

Japan, too, is just happy to be there to ensure that if the North Koreans launch a missile, the Japanese will be of the first to know. The Japanese have been sticking to an American-like line of full, verifiable disarmament as a prior condition to any US concessions, economic or whatever.

China should be pleased as well. The talks are led and hosted by China the talks would not have been able to take place without Chinese pressure on the North Koreans to agree to multi-party talks soon and to stop talking so much trash.

This is the first big delicate diplomatic situation that China has dealt with as an interested facilitator and not as an antagonist as a player and not a pawn. Success might also bring a special kind of "international immunity" that could be so useful in staving off challenges to China's rather corrupt economic engine from ailing 1st World manufacturers.

The negotiations are decidedly Asian and this benefits China as well. The longer the talks go on, the more prospect for success and the more the world sees how Asians (specifically Chinese as facilitators) get the job done. Again, success means driving a substantial wedge between the US and the Far East with China taking up the slack in influence and prestige.

As far as I am concerned, this should be listed in the US pro column as well.

Success also means that a new Asian tiger may emerge, if the model that succeeded for South Korea, China, Thailand, Singapore etc. works in North Korea. A whole nation of starving, isolated people, if the rumors be true: what a gold mine for all the big companies out there.

A peaceful resolution removes North Korea's blanket of fear from the people's heads and puts into question the need for ridiculous amounts of weapons and soldiers per capita. Kim Jong Il's regime is in its death throes he should study Deng Xiao Ping. The world may find that North Korean women want to look beautiful, North Korean men like fast cars and nice shoes and the kids love basketball, video games, cell phones and MTV just as much as we did back in the day.

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  • Sascha Matuszak is a freelance writer living in Chengdu.

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