(Okay, even scarier than being a lunatic is seiing Kim as a genius….cd)
Kim Jong-il practicing the ‘Art of War’
A nervous world sighed with relief when the North Korean denuclearization talks resumed on July 26 after a 13-month deadlock, but now the talks are in recess after 13 days’ fruitless negotiations.
In a moment of suspense, we may well consider China’s traditional wisdom expressed in the “Art of War” – a classic on war strategy, yet a popular reference for diplomacy – that the North Korean nuclear crisis could create “collateral damage” to the six parties involved if substance is lacking in this round of talks.
Kim Jong-il is a veteran practitioner of the “Art of War.” He masters the essence of “bringing the enemy to the field of battle, not being brought there by him” by seizing the initiative of the talks and leading others to his agenda. As long as Pyongyang remained resistant, others had to wait, adjust, and finally sweeten their offers.
For Pyongyang’s return to talks this time, South Korea’s largess of economic assistance was a key factor. The visit of China’s special envoy, state councilor Tang Jiaxuan, to Pyongyang and delivery of a message from President Hu Jintao obviously influenced Kim’s decision to return.
Condoleezza Rice’s whirlwind tour to Asia – particularly the private dinner between assistant secretary of state Christopher Hill and North Korean deputy foreign minister Kim Kye-gwan painstakingly arranged by Beijing – set the time for jumpstarting the talks. Whenever Kim nodded, the wagon of six-party talks rolled forward.
Kim also grasps well the principle of “using the extraordinary to win.” Unpredictabili-ty provides Kim an upper hand in taking advantage of the consistent patterns of the other parties and playing with their inherent differences.
The prior concern of Beijing and Seoul for regional stability limited their assertiveness and made their next course of action transparent to Pyongyang. Washington’s rigid policy produced changeable excuses for Pyongyang to reject the talks and won them the time to develop more nuclear weapons, while creating a rift between Washington and its Asian allies.
This time, Pyongyang’s unexpected demand for the right to operate the light-water reactors made the talks break off.
Time is gradually running out for substantial denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea could become a potential nuclear supplier to terrorists. The emerging new nuclear powers including both Koreas and Japan could destroy the long-term regional stability.
Time is not on Pyongyang’s side either. Washington has declared that they would end the six-party talks if no progress occurred from this round of talks. If diplomacy dies, the only option for Pyongyang will be confrontation.
Pyongyang is now living among the differences of Washington, Beijing and Seoul. With the nuclear equation deteriorating, who knows that Pyongyang will not be squeezed if those three parties narrow their crevice by a common urgency for denuclearization?
Other parties must seize the initiative back from North Korea in order to create real momentum for the denuclearization efforts. Pyongyang may have the final say on convening talks, but Kim is very cautious in tempering the impatience of other parties. He can neither corner the world’s superpower nor compromise the support of China and South Korea.
Other parties have their trump cards to make Pyongyang behave. They have learned a lesson by avoiding setting an ending date of this round of talks in order to prevent Pyongyang from walking away and snatching the initiative again, but they must make Kim conscious of the value of remaining in his seat, and the cost of not doing so when the talks resume after two weeks’ recess.
The best strategy for other parties to deal with Kim’s capricious ways is to become unpredictable themselves.
If Washington can produce more surprises by not only addressing the North Korean leader as “Mr. Kim,” but also being prepared to be flexible in its proposal of “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization” and in the sequences of providing reciprocal measures; if China and South Korea can add a bit of muscle, the denuclearization battle on the Korean Peninsula would become more winnable.
It is time to create real denuclearization initiatives. This round of talks should not drag on without substantial progress. Nor should it simply produce a joint statement without genuine commitment.
North Korea’s defense could dissolve before the real incentives of denuclearization. Hopefully, we will not lapse into the worst policy options envisioned by the “Art of War”, which are military attacks. The Iraqi war should not be repeated on the Korean Peninsula.
Anne Wu is a fellow at the Belfer Center of Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. – Ed.