How to Walk Away from North Korea

How to Walk Away from North Korea

By Richard Halloran - December 21, 2008

The negotiations intended to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear arms have all but collapsed and the finger pointing to affix blame is under way.

At the same time, the conventional wisdom says the issue has been passed to President-elect Barack Obama to resolve after he takes office on Jan. 20. Nowhere is it carved in stone, however, that he need do so. Walking away is a realistic option.

Cutting through the diplomatic verbiage enveloping what is known as the Six-Party Talks, there's enough fault to go around:

• North Korea has had no intention of giving up its nuclear program, has tested a weapon, and has indicated that it plans to test again. Pyongyang's purpose has been to string out the negotiations to see what it could get in oil and other economic bribes.

• China, praised for hosting the talks, has done little to press North Korea. Rather, Beijing has allowed the talks to muddle along while claiming that China has little influence over North Korea. That contention from a rising power is increasingly hard to believe.

• The United States has negotiated as if North Korea was governed by rational people susceptible to Western logic. Instead, the North Koreans have scorned US pledges of diplomatic recognition, economic benefits, and a peace treaty to replace the truce that ended the Korean War of 1950-53.

• South Korea, no matter what government is in power, has been lukewarm toward the talks because a) a large majority believes that their North Korean cousins will not use nuclear weapons against them and b) reunification will mean the South will inherit the North's weapons.

• Japan, although anxious about North Korean belligerence, nuclear weapons, and missiles, has been hampered by weak governments and an obsession with North Korean abductions of Japanese snatched from their homeland.

• Russia, a patron of North Korea in the days of the Soviet Union, has been trying to reestablish itself as an Asian power by cleaning up its rusting navy, promoting arms sales, and fostering trade and economic aid. So far, however, that has not translated into political influence.

President George W. Bush held out hope this week that the Six Party Talks could be revived. While flying from Iraq to Afghanistan, he told reporters: "A success of this administration is to put a framework in place that has China, the United States, and South Korea and Russia and Japan all at the table, all saying the same thing."

The president asserted that the process of the negotiations had been reversed. "It used to be, we will give you what you ask for and hope that you respond," the president said. "Now it is, here's what you must do if you want our help." He contended the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Il, "is trying to test the process."

The president acknowledged, however, that the Six-Party Talks are over for his administration and would be passed to President-elect Obama. "The key," the president said, "is to be firm and patient with a structure that will enable the next President or the next President after that to be able to solve the problem diplomatically."

President-elect Obama has been cagey about North Korea's nuclear weapons, perhaps to avoid responsibility before he moves into the White House. He says on his web site,, that "the gravest danger to the American people is the threat of a terrorist attack with a nuclear weapon and the spread of nuclear weapons to dangerous regimes."

Mr. Obama says his administration "will pursue tough, direct diplomacy without preconditions with all nations, friend and foe." He pledges he "will forge a more effective framework in Asia that goes beyond bilateral agreements, occasional summits, and ad hoc arrangements, such as the six-party talks on North Korea." No direct mention of resuming the talks.

Considering everything with which the new president must cope, such as the economy, energy, immigration, the environment, Iraq, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan, Russia, relations with the European Community and NATO, Israel and the Middle East, Canada and Mexico, and finding a new dog for his daughters, setting aside the North Korean issue might be tempting.

He could tell the North Koreans quietly that they appear not to be interested in negotiating in good faith. If they change their minds, let him know. Meantime, a threat to US forces, allies, and friends would be met with a forceful response in time, place, and method of American choosing.

Richard Halloran, a free lance writer in Honolulu, was a military correspondent for The New York Times for ten years. He can be reached at

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