During the past couple of weeks the North Koreans have once again pulled the red herring across the trail in an attempt to distract the rest of the world from the fundamental Korean issue. Dutifully, commentators and government officials have editorialized and issued statements about terms and conditions for yet another possible round of negotiations.
Please, would someone give us a break? Could someone in any concerned government service come out and state what’s really going on?
Allow me to call out the emperors are not wearing any clothes. The problem that is at the core of the six party talks is not North Korea’s atomic weapons. The real issue is that the North cannot bring itself to recognize the legitimacy of another government on the Korean Peninsula.
Everything else has been cascading down from this sticking point since the end of World War II, up to and including the North Korea-related issues of this week. Meanwhile, remarkable time and effort have been devoted to secondary issues with totally unrealistic expectations that by solving these lesser issues, the overall tensions on the Korean Peninsula may somehow be resolved.
Beyond any controversy, the smartest thing Pyongyang has done has been to develop an atomic weapons program as a way to repeatedly get the world’s (read: America’s) attention and to distract diplomatic focus from the core issue, which is the North’s refusal to recognize the Republic of Korea as a legitimate government.
Within the North’s ideology, there is but one government, which in turn necessitated the Korean War. Given the absence of victory, the North has had no choice but to continue to find schemes to bring the U.S. back to the negotiating table on one pretext or another. The masterpiece alibi has been the nuclear weapons issue. With the ongoing turnover of “Korea hands” in Washington, it has been relatively easy for Pyongyang to force American-Korea desk officers to focus on the pending and immediate nuclear threat from North Korea.
In the process of one North Korean-manufactured mini crisis after another, Pyongyang has been able to achieve three objectives. First, the North Koreans have made sure that North Korea matters in spite of its political, diplomatic and economic bankruptcy. Second, by playing Washington and its allies like a yo-yo of promises and provocations, the North has been able to extract foreign aid from its sworn enemies. Third, by achieving the first two goals, the key issue of Pyongyang’s refusal to recognize Seoul is never adequately addressed.
When one looks at Seoul’s repeated demands for Pyongyang to apologize for last year’s military episodes that resulted in the needless deaths of islanders and sailors, it is readily apparent why North Korea refuses to do so - when viewed from the North’s perspective. To apologize would in effect recognize the legitimacy of the Seoul government having intrinsic rights and responsibilities as a sovereign state - as opposed to being a puppet government that can be cajoled into coughing up cash and aid whenever it suits Pyongyang’s purposes.
At the risk of making too fine a point, just what in blazes does the U.S. have to offer in negotiating a “denuclearization of Korea?” Decades ago, the U.S. withdrew tactical atomic weapons from Korea. What’s more to be demanded from Pyongyang? Is the North suggesting the removal of the U.S. Navy from Yokosuka with its potential nuclear capacity? A no-go zone for American submarines in the east Pacific? America’s removal of ICBMs from North Dakota? Or, does anyone genuinely expect the U.S. to build nuclear reactors in North Korea?
It’s all nonsense. The North knows it, and many American government officials know it. And yet there is a good deal of resources being expended towards a possible next round of denuclearization talks. It may be cynically said that all another round of talks may produce are opportunities for American government officials to upgrade their CVs as having represented or supported American diplomacy “to reduce nuclear tensions in NE Asia.”
So, given all of this, what may be the alternative?
As an American business professional, here is my suggestion from my years of negotiating business deals with Koreans and others. First, change the game. Inform North Korea that the U.S. is no longer interested in a continued discussion on a dead topic. We will not recognize North Korea as a nuclear power for two reasons: One, to do so would be a bad precedence for other dictatorships; and two, to do so would to recognize the overriding legitimacy of the issue. In other words, denuclearization is a non-negotiable issue as it is not a matter of possible discussion with the United States.
At the same time, what is the first and foremost concern to the United States and its allies is the formal recognition of South Korea by the North. If this cannot be achieved, after all these decades, there is essentially nothing more to be expected from the United States and the rest of the world. All other matters are off the negotiating table until Pyongyang formally recognizes the legitimacy of Seoul as the government. Only after that has been achieved to the mutual satisfaction of Seoul and Pyongyang will Washington enter into serious peace talks with Pyongyang.
After a half a century and more, with South Korea achieving its political, economic and diplomatic overwhelming dominance, the North must be forced to come to grips with reality. Otherwise, it is total nonsense for Washington to play along with Pyongyang’s fantasies, which includes providing humanitarian and other assistance, as unintended tribute to a delusional regime.
Tom Coyner is a Senior Advisor to IPG and the President of Softlanding Korea.
The article appeared in the Korea Joonang Daily in August of 2011.