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Six-party talks – the real winner(s)?

Updated On: Feb 16, 2007

The Bush administration is fast claiming credit for success in the North Korean talks - first with Condoleezza Rice on a news conference to the international media and claiming that the Bush administration had achieved a permanent peace solution, followed by President Bush going on a rare press conference (the first in 2007) and dedicating the second half of his speech to talk about success and breakthrough in the North Korean talks.

But was the US instrumental in the breakthrough in getting North Korea to give up its weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and should it deserve the credit for this? Some analysts have already labeled the talk as one between two lameducks, an unpopular US President with record low ratings (30%) and an embattled North Korea dictator who is isolated by his closest allies in China and Russia. Given such a scenario and cornered with no way to go, it seemed rational for the two leaders to achieve some kind of compromise for the breakthrough. And that is exactly what might have transpired.

Silently and quietly, however, the agreement also signaled the rise of China. It was China who pulled the six-party talks together. It was China who drafted the first agreement for this breakthrough. It was China who decided to take on the burden of supplying North Korean demands for oil along with Russia and South Korea to make up for US inability or unwillingness to provide such aid. It was China which closed the border to Pyongyang, effectively forcing the capital to capitulate and return to the negotiations table. If anything, China deserves as much credit as the US in the six-party talks and we are likely to hear more of this in the near future.

Some analysts wondered if the Chinese role would be diminished as North Korea started talking to the US directly (the first time in Berlin at the end of 2006).  However, given the important “behind-the-scene” role of Beijing in the current breakthrough and the talks, it is quite likely that China will continue to have some role and influence on North Korea. Fuel, aid, money will still have to be ferried to the North Korea regime from the Chinese border and the US, which will face a tough fight in the Congress to establish formal relations with Pyongyang, is likely to continue to depend on Beijing for access to the Stalinist regime's leaders in the foreseeable future. In the short to medium term, China's role in the Korean Peninsula is likely to be enhanced to keep the momentum going for the implementation of the agreement.

And in fact, quite inconspicuously, at the heels of the success in North Korea, India, China and Russia held a little trilateral of their own (which some may see as a response to the trilateral that US is building with Japan and Australia in the Asia-Pacific region).

The meeting between Asia's three rising powers signals a potential challenge to a distracted US in the Middle East. The three powers agreed not to compete excessively with each other and stressed on cooperation using precedents as its testimony. During the Cold War, all three were aligned against Washington for a large part of their existence. It is also a signal that Washington's displeasure at such tete-a-tete behind its back no longer has the awe that it used to. It is also an indication of increasing frustrations at Washington's efforts to try to play one power against another in the region.

Regardless of who deserves the credit for the breakthrough at the North Korean talks, regional leaders have cheered the outcome. ASEAN was one of the first to release a joint statement lauding the talks and also encouraging the rest of the process to go on without hindrance. El Baradei of the IAEA has also granted access to international aid for North Korea in anticipation of the resolution of the nuclear standoff in which North Korea will give up nuclear weapons and shut down reactors in exchange for fuel which will be supplied equally by US, Russia, South Korea and China.

Clearly missing from the picture is Japan. Japan placed full trust in the US for solidarity on the issue of abductions and depended on the US for a united front against North Korea in making the issue of abductions a pre-requisite for any nuclear solutions in North Korea. However, the US did not seem to have see that as the most important pre-requisite and the issue never became a stumbling block. The two main stumbling blocks in the talks were the unfreezing of North Korean money in Macau as well as the provision of fuel. The abduction issues were nowhere near the negotiating table. Other than expressing sympathy and understanding, the Bush administration which is facing tense relations with the Japanese government now over the Japanese Defence Minister's repeated anti-Iraq war remarks has done little for its main ally in East Asia. Understandably, Tokyo must be feeling shortchanged right now.

Given that PM Abe has staked his personal reputation and political fortunes on the highly-emotionally charge issue of abduction of Japanese citizens by North Koreans, this is likely to be a devastating blow to the pro-American conservative LDP administration (with PM Abe facing record low ratings). How this episode will unfold is anybody's guess. Already there are signs that there may be pressures within the LDP for Abe to soften his stance towards Pyongyang.

But for now, Tokyo is digging in its heels and insisting that the abduction issue be resolved before it is willing to forward any fuel or aid for the Stalinist regime. This could very well be an isolated stance in East Asian politics and likely to contrast even further with Beijing's suave diplomacy in the Korean Peninsula.  (16 February 2007)

Sources:

Abe under pressure to soften stance towards Pyongyang (Straits Times, 16 February 2007)

Japan faces isolation over North Korea (AFP, 14 February 2007)

Tokyo unwilling to provide energy aid (Straits Times, 14 February 2007)

ASEAN lauds North Korea nuclear disarmament deal (Antara, 14 February 2007)

N Korea wins staring contest (TODAY, 14 February 2007)

In Shift, Accord on North Korea Seems to Be Set (NY Times, 13 February 2007)

N. Korea agrees to nuclear disarmament (AP, 13 February 2007)

Tentative deal in N.Korea nuke talks (AP, 12 February 2007)

Nuclear Talks on North Korea Hit Roadblock (NY Times, 12 February 2007)

Envoys: Nuke talks depend on North Korea (AP, 12 February 2007)

Marathon North Korea nuclear talks appear to secure breakthrough (Channelnewsasia, 12 February 2007)