Friday, May 29, 2009

Positive incentives needed to pull North Korea back from the brink

With North Korea taking its game of nuclear brinkmanship to the next level over the last week, the security situation in Northeast Asia is looking increasingly bleak.

The only country with any real leverage over Kim Jong-il's hermit nation, China, is not eager to raise the pressure on its neighbour beyond verbal condemnations for fear of harming lucrative trade relations or precipitating a humanitarian crisis that could see millions of refugees streaming across the border.

So what is the international community (or more specifically the other five members of the stalled six-party talks) to do about North Korea's seemingly inexorable march toward nuclear armament other than climb into the nearest bomb shelter, strap on a tin hat and hope for the best?

Earlier today, at the appropriately timed launch of a new Asia Security Initiative, I met a man who had some good suggestions.

Kim Byung-Kook is professor of political science at Korea University and a former national security adviser to the South Korean government.

He argued that North Korea's escalation of the last week - testing a nuclear device, firing short-range missiles and tearing up the peace treaty with the South - did not represent the random posturing of a diseased and paranoid madman (as some think) but was part of a "set schedule" with specific goals.

"North Korea is trying to get its version of security guarantees accepted by the five parties," he explained. "They are: 1. Recognition of North Korea as a de facto nuclear state. 2. The withdrawal of US troops from South Korea. 3. An orderly leadership transition."
The problem is that the first two aims are completely unacceptable to the five parties and to the US and South Korea in particular.

The key to resolving the crisis, Kim said, was in working out how to assure the North that its security was guaranteed and that there would be no interference in the transition of power from the ageing Kim Jong-il while at the same time not acquiescing to the North's demands for nuclear status and the removal of American troops from the South.

With so little room for negotiation, this will be an extremely difficult task.

"We need unity, patience and for the five parties (especially the US, South Korea and China) to start thinking seriously about what kind of positive incentives we can offer the North when the window of opportunity for talks comes," Kim added. "We shouldn't panic but we need to take the situation very seriously."

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