Calling Pyongyang’s bluff
might be best way
to get it to the table

Seoul » Now that the U.S. elections are over, there is renewed hope that the stalled North Korea nuclear talks can once again be resumed. But while the other five members of the Six-Party Talks -- China, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the United States -- continue, individually and collectively, to call on the North to return to the negotiating table, North Korea is continuing to play hard to get. Pyongyang continues to blame everyone but itself for the current lack of dialogue.

While Washington gets the lion's share of the blame -- due to its "hostile attitude" toward the otherwise lovable North -- Seoul also has become a convenient fall guy. South Korea's "secret nuclear experiments" have "destroyed the foundation" for the talks, North Korean spokesmen have proclaimed, exposing Washington's "double standards" regarding the nuclear issue.

In an attempt to divert attention away from its own transgression, North Korea insists that the South's nuclear programs be examined at the next round of Six-Party Talks, if and when they ever agree to hold one. Seoul, after initially resisting this demand, has now begrudgingly agreed that its own nuclear activities can be an agenda item. Yet Pyongyang continues to play for more time, no doubt enjoying the spectacle as the others continue to beg the North to come to the table.

Perhaps it's time for a more proactive approach. Perhaps it's time to challenge Pyongyang to take "yes" for an answer, and to end the current game in which Pyongyang continues to hold out before each round until receiving sufficient "incentives" merely for attending. (Beijing reportedly has had to offer significant amounts of economic and energy assistance to get the North to previous meetings, including in one instance an agreement to build a glass manufacturing factory in honor of Dear Leader Kim Jong-il's birthday.)

Republic of Korea President Roh Moo-Hyun should seize the initiative! He should formally ask Beijing to arrange another round of Six-Party Talks this month to allow Seoul to fully explain to the other participants the nature and extent of its past nuclear programs and the steps it is taking, including full cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to ensure that they are verifiably ended.

Beijing should then set a date for this meeting and invite all the other parties to participate, making it clear that the meeting will proceed as scheduled, even if not all participants choose to attend. This would put the pressure on Pyongyang to come, rather than putting the pressure on Beijing and others to bribe or cajole it to make another appearance.

The IAEA should be invited, by Seoul, to send a representative to the meeting to discuss its findings -- no fewer than four IAEA inspection teams have fully investigated the ROK's nuclear programs, at Seoul's invitation and with its full cooperation, since the revelation of South Korea's nuclear wrongdoings. The big difference between Seoul's admitted transgressions and Pyongyang's indirectly acknowledged violations of Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty regulations is that it was Seoul itself that revealed its most recent illegal actions -- taken by a small group of scientists without government sanction, some four years ago -- and then welcomed the IAEA to investigate not only the 2000 uranium enrichment experiments but an earlier (1980s) plutonium-based weapons program as well.

Seoul's embarrassing revelations can provide a way out of the crisis for North Korea if it so chooses. If renegade scientists can be blamed for Seoul's transgressions, certainly they can be discovered (or manufactured) in the North. Diplomatic niceties (and a desire by all sides to move forward) would result in acceptance of almost any North Korean excuse if the end result was full disclosure by Pyongyang of its uranium and plutonium-based programs.

Rather than ignore Pyongyang's insults and allegations, Seoul should meet them head-on, by demonstrating its subsequent full nuclear transparency at the next Six-Party Talks. It should then challenge Pyongyang to follow its example.

Ralph A. Cossa is president of the Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based nonprofit research institute, and senior editor of Comparative Connections.

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