[Editorial] S. Korea’s role in nuclear negotiations

Posted on : 2008-02-04 11:18 KST Modified on : 2008-02-04 11:18 KST

Returning from a three day visit to Pyongyang, Sung Kim, head of the Korea desk at the U.S. State Department, said North Korean officials have yet to submit a declaration of that country’s nuclear programs and inventory. In the meantime, North Korea’s National Defence Commission chairman Kim Jong-il was in China at the end of last month, and, while meeting with Wang Jairui, the head of the Communist Party’s International Liaison Department, told Wang that “all parties to the six-party process need to carry out their commitments in good faith, in accordance with the principle of ‘action for action.’” By saying so, Kim was calling on the Americans to take action on removing North Korea from its list of terror-sponsoring states and to stop applying the Trading With The Enemy Act (TWEA). The six-party process is stuck at the nuclear declaration stage.

There is, of course, an ongoing effort to advance the negotiations. On January 30, top U.S. delegate to the six-party talks, Christopher Hill, said he expects the North’s declaration to include between 30 and 40 kilograms of plutonium, and that the United States is of the belief that the North has not developed the ability to produce highly enriched uranium (HEU). By saying as much, he was providing a standard that the U.S. would accept for North Korea’s declaration. South Korea’s top six-party negotiator, Chun Young-woo, said on February 1 that negotiations on a abolishing the North’s nuclear programs would not proceed “unless it is provided with a light-water reactor.” He was trying to tempt the North to move on a good-faith declaration with the light-water reactor (LWR).

However, the situation does not allow for optimism. The United States is holding to a position of “declaration first, removal of sanctions second,” while North Korea insists the United States does not trust it. The fact that South Korea is going through a change of administration is also a variable. On January 1, President-elect Lee Myung-bak said that economic ties with the North would depend on progress on the nuclear issue and a consensus among the South Korean people, but he has said nothing about how he wants to resolve the nuclear issue. On top of this, the United States has a presidential election coming up in November, which perhaps means it is only natural to have some observers suggesting that Pyongyang is waiting for the next U.S. administration to take shape.

The way to resolve the situation would be the gradual approach recently proposed by the U.S. Congressional Research Service. The idea is to take action on either the state sponsors of terror list or TWEA after Pyongyang completes the “disablement” of its nuclear facilities, and then go through with removing the remaining two sanctions after Pyongyang finishes a full and complete declaration. Whatever the plan is going to be, there will have to be involvement on the part of South Korea. Since it is the mutual distrust between Pyongyang and Washington that is the biggest obstacle right now, Seoul needs to be play more of an intermediary, since it can talk to both. It should go without saying that this would require cooperation on the part of the current and incoming South Korean administrations, on the premise that there will be continuity in Seoul’s North Korea policy.

Please direct questions or comments to [englishhani@hani.co.kr]