U.S. and North Korea Shouldn't Let Their Olympic Truce End
(Bloomberg View) -- Now that the winter Olympic Games in South Korea have ended, it's unclear how long the recent diplomatic thaw on the Korean Peninsula will last. It's not in anyone's interest -- America's least of all -- that it should soon dissolve.
Even though U.S. and North Korean representatives refused to meet at the Games, despite sitting meters away from one another, both sides have indicated directly or through South Korea that they're open to talks. How to start those discussions is the question, as both are trying to portray any meeting as a victory for their uncompromising strategy. The U.S. insists that the North Koreans demonstrate their sincerity and peaceable intentions by offering to negotiate away their nuclear arsenal. Meanwhile, the North Koreans have no intention of surrendering the relative security which they believe their nuclear program has ensured. The U.S. has added yet more sanctions, provoking yet another angry response from the North.
To make progress, both sides need to try harder. The U.S. is the relatively stronger and more capable party in this dispute. As such, the responsibility falls on America to show greater foresight -- and empathy -- toward its smaller rival. Weak nations, too, deserve their dignity and won't long abide being denied it. Ignoring this reality will only return the situation to the vicious cycle of provocation and retaliation which has dominated the nuclear standoff for so long.
Looking back at the history of this dispute, North Korea has several reasons to feel insecure. Though more than 60 years have passed since the end of the Korean War, there's still only an armistice agreement in place on the peninsula, not a peace treaty between warring parties. Confronted with a U.S. military presence across the border -- not to mention the nuclear shield extended to South Korea -- the North has, over the years, wavered between pursuing negotiations to win security guarantees and developing nuclear weapons for self-protection.
The 1994 Agreed Framework -- in which the North agreed to abandon its nuclear program in exchange for heavy fuel and light-water reactors provided by the U.S. and its allies -- fell apart because neither side fully honored the deal. After 2003, the Six-Party Talks managed to reach several more important agreements. Those all collapsed as well because of lack of good faith on both sides. If the North deserves blame for reneging on its 2005 pledge to abandon all nuclear weapons, the U.S., too, undermined mutual trust by imposing financial sanctions on Macau-based Banco Delta Asia just as the parties had begun to implement the agreement.
In its years of back and forth with the U.S., North Korea has concluded that America's only real goal is to bring down its government. Having lost confidence in gaining security through dialogue, it's pinned its hopes on developing a full-fledged nuclear capability. That choice has prompted the U.S. to intensify its own threats. Since the North's first nuclear test in 2006, annual U.S.-South Korea military exercises have reached a scale unseen since the end of the Vietnam War. The United Nations Security Council has adopted 10 sanctions resolutions that have almost entirely halted North Korea's foreign trade. All of this has only made the North even more determined to cling to its nuclear weapons.
No outside party can solve this problem. The North Koreans regard the U.S. as the central threat to their survival -- so only the U.S. can address their security concerns. China can only encourage the two sides to take steps towards dialogue. The parties should be confident that, as with a car that's been idle for too long, just getting discussions started is the hardest part. Once the car is on the road, progress will become easier.
Remember, five of the North's six nuclear tests took place when there was a setback in talks or no talks at all. The evolution of this confrontation tells us that as long as the door for negotiations is open, tensions can be controlled and the North's nuclear program is less likely to be accelerate. In that sense, entering peace talks would itself qualify as an achievement.
So far, neither side has officially accepted China's proposal that the U.S. freeze its joint military drills with South Korea in exchange for North Korea suspending nuclear and missile tests. Yet, both parties essentially implemented such a "freeze-for-freeze" scheme during the Olympics, which suggests that there is some flexibility in their stances. They should exploit that ambiguity to extend this state of calm and begin talks soon, hoping to build momentum.
The U.S. has every right to be concerned about its national security. But peace can’t be achieved on one side alone and, in the current situation, the U.S. will have a hard time truly feeling safe unless North Korea does, too. That’s why China calls for building common security in the region and the world at large.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Fu Ying is chairperson of the Foreign Affairs Committee of China's National People's Congress, and of the Academic Committee of China's Institute of International Strategy at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
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