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North Korea: As Pyongyang Ups The Ante, Washington Sends Top Envoy To Seoul

As the crisis with North Korea continues to escalate, Washington has sent its top envoy for Asia, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, to Seoul for talks. The United States now says it is willing to talk to North Korea and could address Pyongyang's energy shortages if the nuclear crisis is resolved.

Prague, 13 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- As if excerpted from a John le Carre spy novel or Tom Clancy thriller, the nuclear standoff between North Korea and its chief perceived nemesis, the United States, continues to escalate by the day.

North Korea followed up its sudden withdrawal from the nuclear nonproliferation treaty with a weekend threat to resume ballistic-missile tests, saying U.S. policies were forcing the country to take a militaristic stance.

Washington dispatched its top envoy for Asia, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, to Seoul for talks with the South Korean leadership. Speaking to journalists today after meeting with South Korean President-elect Roh Moo Hyun, Kelly had a message for Pyongyang, telling North Korea that Washington is ready for some form of direct talks: "We are, of course, willing to talk to North Korea about their response to the international community, particularly with respect to elimination of nuclear weapons. And we are going to be talking here with the government people over some of the best ways to do that."

But Kelly reiterated the U.S. position that a willingness to talk does not mean a willingness to negotiate on Pyongyang's series of demands, which include a nonaggression treaty with Washington and additional aid. Nevertheless, Kelly did hold out a carrot to the North, hinting that if Pyongyang were to abandon its policy of confrontation, the United States could respond with investment: "Once we can get beyond the nuclear weapons, there may be opportunities with the U.S., private investors in other countries to help North Korea in the energy area."

Experts agree, however, that Pyongyang is unlikely to be swayed by vague promises of future economic cooperation from Washington. Having captured the world's attention and winning a verbal promise from U.S. President George W. Bush that Washington will not attack it and may even open direct talks, North Korea is likely to press for maximum advantage in an ultimate game of nuclear brinkmanship. Pyongyang is acutely aware that the United States has few options other than to hold talks, having all but ruled out any kind of military intervention.

Aidan Foster-Carter, a Korea analyst at Britain's Leeds University, tells RFE/RL that the current predicament in which the United States and its allies find themselves illustrates the peril of going against Teddy Roosevelt's maxim: "Speak softly and carry a big stick." In this case, U.S. President George W. Bush spoke harshly, including North Korea in his so-called "axis of evil," but now finds the U.S. carries no stick with which to effectively counter Pyongyang's threats.

"In many ways, some might see it as rather humiliating for the world's sole superpower, the way North Korea seems to have been able to play them," Foster-Carter said. "What the North Koreans have been up to -- though one doesn't condone dangerous brinkmanship or defying the NPT (nonproliferation treaty) and leaving it and all that -- does expose the hollowness of the Bush administration's strategy. Unlike the Clinton administration's engagement -- one might quarrel with engagement and say the North Koreans have been breaching their agreements -- the Bush administration hasn't had a policy. Even now, it probably hasn't agreed on one, except for rhetoric. And what the North Koreans have been doing over the last month or so has rather exposed the limits of that rhetoric."

In time, Foster-Carter says the United States may have to offer North Korea some written guarantee of nonaggression in exchange for a cooling of tensions. But if such a document, in the form of a declaration, is insufficient for Pyongyang, the U.S. administration will face a difficult time: "If on the other hand the North Koreans want a formal treaty, it does have to go to Congress. We then get into the politics of the Republican Party and you can imagine that quite a lot of more hawkish people would call this appeasement and so on. So it won't be particularly politically easy in the United States to get to that point, but at the same time, I don't think it's impossible, eventually."

Complicating matters is the current political situation in South Korea. Part of James Kelly's mission in Seoul will be to forge personal bonds with the incoming president, who has never been to the United States and who won election last December amid anti-American protests, on a platform of conciliation with the North.

In recent days, as tensions with Pyongyang have grown, Roh Moo Hyun has been careful to stress his country's ties with the United States. But he has also said he foresees a time when the 37,000 U.S. troops stationed in the country might leave and made it clear Seoul wants a role in any talks with Pyongyang.

Keen to exploit every advantage in its favor, Pyongyang has once again been making overtures to South Korea's people, urging them to rise up against the U.S. military -- a message that will find a receptive audience among the thousands of South Koreans who have been demonstrating against the presence of U.S. forces since the acquittal in November of two U.S. soldiers who killed two schoolgirls in a road accident last June.

Widespread anti-Americanism, fanned by that acquittal, is a new phenomenon in South Korea, says Foster-Carter. It is too early to tell to what degree the popular mood will influence events as the crisis with North Korea continues and whether public opinion may eventually change, but it is undeniably a factor to be watched:

"This is indeed a really, really interesting new factor -- the rise of what seems quite a widespread and quite a deep anti-Americanism. We never really had that in South Korea, or if there was, there were always the normal resentments that happen when you have foreign troops around and the various issues of friction that arise. But usually, that was completely outweighed by fear of the North. I'm still not quite clear whether we've got a movement or just a moment on this. We'll really have to see as it unfolds. But it's been significant enough. It affected and arguably swung the result of December's presidential election."

In Moscow, meanwhile, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko says Russia is preparing its own "package plan" to resolve the North Korean crisis. The package reportedly includes guaranteeing the nonnuclear status of the Korean peninsula and the resumption of humanitarian and economic aid to North Korea, as well as security guarantees to the North.