There’s been something of a breakthrough in the long-standing impasse over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Pyongyang pulled out of the six-party talks on the issue more than two years ago and then let off another nuclear device. But after discussions between North and South Korea at the ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting in Bali last week US secretary of state Hillary Clinton invited a high ranking official from Pyongyang to visit the United States to break the ice. Leonid Petrov lectures in Korean studies at the University of Sydney.
JIM MIDDLETON: How optimistic are you about this announcement?
LEONID PETROV: Well any dialogue, any conversation, meeting and encounter is a positive development in the current state of affairs for north-east Asia in general and inter-Korean relations, US-North Korean relations in particular.
The problem is that if the talks about talks lead us only to the six-party talks where North Korea is expected to disarm unilaterally, I don’t think that we should be very optimistic because on many occasions Pyongyang insisted that it is not going to disarm unilaterally.
North Korea is prepared to give up its nuclear program if the conditions are right. And among the conditions are the security assurance that North Korea is not going to be attacked, that no pre-emptive strike, no regime change is going to be exhorted upon this north-east Asian nation is going to be in place; as well as diplomatic recognition; as well as lifting of economic sanctions. That’s what North Korea is actually requesting in return for freezing and dismantling its nuclear program.
JIM MIDDLETON: The conditions that you see North Korea requiring from the United States if it were to abandon its nuclear weapons program, are they something that Washington might be willing to discuss with Pyongyang bilaterally? Is it also something that the Obama administration can sell to the US people with a presidential election looming?
LEONID PETROV: On many occasions the North Koreans called upon the United States to sign the peace treaty, to end the Korean War. The Clinton administration just before their tenure expired were prepared to even resume diplomatic relations with North Korea. Whether the Obama administration is ready go that far is not clear – probably not.
And your question is very legitimate. The Obama administration is facing major issues at home. As well as the major war that is going on in the Middle East and the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and Iraq is all overshadows the developments in north-east Asia. So North Korea – the importance of North Korea should not be over-estimated.
JIM MIDDLETON: What would be the attitude of the other participants in the six-party talks, especially China, if the United States were to address this bilaterally?
LEONID PETROV: Well bilateralism is something what worries all the parties, all neighbours of Koreans. Once North Koreans start talking bilaterally to the Americans, Chinese, Japanese and Russians immediately get worried and concerned. None of the parties want to lose anything as a result of bilateral and secretive negotiations between any parties. And that’s why the six-party talks format was introduced, just to avoid any major development. The status quo is something what all parties actually prefer more or less.
Although probably Russia is the only country which would genuinely would love to see Koreas reunify or at least peacefully co-exist. All other parties have their own conflicting agendas.
JIM MIDDLETON: A final question: Does North Korea have any reasons beyond the fact that it is desperately short of food and needs food aid, for agreeing to reopen discussions with the United States at this moment?
LEONID PETROV: North Korea is going through the succession transitional process where the top leader Kim Jong-il is obviously preparing the heir to rule the country sooner or later. It’s not going to happen soon, or at least as long as Kim Jong-il is alive. We know that difficult economic circumstances, the man-made and natural disasters which have been hitting North Korea for the last two decades left the population rather angry and desperate.
So some sort of major breakthrough in relations with the United States first of all would definitely be supportive and helpful for the current regime. And we know there is no elections, there is no democratic feedback from the, between the government and the population. But some positive news in improvement relations with the United States first of all would be very positive development for the regime, for the leaders.
And diplomatic recognition, security assurance and economic assistance from the United States is crucial for North Korea’s survival.
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