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North Korea: UN Cohesion 'Closer Than It Has Ever Been'

Kim Jong-Il, leader of North Korea (epa) WASHINGTON, October 11, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Some analysts say North Korea's announcement that it has tested an atomic weapon represents a failure of diplomacy by the five nations that have been trying to persuade Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program: China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States. Some say China is the biggest loser because it has long supported the North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il, financially and politically, but he continues to ignore Beijing's counsel. However, one veteran observer of the region argues that Pyongyang's claimed test is far from representing a failure for the often-divided international community. James Lilley, former U.S. ambassador to South Korea under President Ronald Reagan, and to China under President George H.W, shares his thoughts with RFE/RL correspondent Andrew Tully.

RFE/RL: Some analysts are saying the five nations negotiating with North Korea failed because they weren't able to persuade Kim to forgo the test, in part because each party has a different reason for wanting him to abandon his nuclear ambitions. Do you agree?

Lilley: The Chinese have a different agenda, the South Koreans have a different agenda, we [the United States] have a different agenda. How can you reconcile the agendas to get this group [the five nations negotiating with North Korea] to do something? What the North Koreans have done is something we've never been able to do: to really get cohesion out of the other five powers. It's closer than it ever has been.

RFE/RL: Does that mean that North Korea has handed the five powers the solution?

Lilley: Absolutely not. But if you get cohesion from the big five, North Korea is finished. And the question is: Can you get a soft landing [an end to the Kim regime without attendant chaos]? Can you get them to work into some kind of economic reform program? Can you get them to change the policies of the regime?

RFE/RL: What is China's stake in the negotiations?

Lilley: China -- they despise Kim Jong-Il. They think he's a Stalinist freak, that he's not adopted sensible economic programs. But they want him to survive. They don't want him to implode. Because if he implodes, China really has got problems. Five million refugees in rust-belt Manchuria. One of those crazy North Korean generals with medals from his neck to his groin -- when the country [North Korea] falls apart, he gets the chemical weapons. And what the hell is he going to do? Kim Jong-Il is bad but this thing is worse. And finally, China doesn't want a unified Korea under Seoul allied with the United States. And the best way to prevent that from happening is a buffer zone, with Kim Jong-Il [in charge] in North Korea.

RFE/RL: I notice you didn't mention nuclear weapons or nuclear proliferation. Do the Chinese approach these issues secondarily?

Lilley: Secondarily about weapons of mass destruction, secondarily about proliferation; primarily about the survival of the [North Korean] regime. Ergo, the sanctions must be limited because they know how fragile it is and that it could collapse and cause these three things I just told you about.

RFE/RL: Many observers say Kim's determination to develop a nuclear arsenal is meant to persuade the United States -- now the world's only superpower -- to treat it as a kind of equal, and to agree to bilateral talks at the highest level. Do you agree?

Lilley: They are trying to set the terms: 'You must come to Pyongyang, you must talk [with North Korea] at a high level, da-da-da-da-da.' Now, what if we cave in to all that? Why don't we do that? We're a big power, we can take that. Why should we? Why do we bargain with them? Why do we -- we send an envoy up to Pyongyang, [Assistant U.S. Secretary of State] Chris Hill, and he'll talk to you about resumption of the six-party talks. You'll have bilateral talks, we'll have the six-party talks. That's what you call compromise. Let's see if they'll do that.

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