Wall Street Journal
July 9, 2007
Pg. 1 North's Positive Signals On Disarmament Raise Regional Security Hopes
By Jay Solomon
WASHINGTON -- As the Bush administration pushes ahead with North Korea disarmament talks, U.S. strategists also are beginning to study possible ways to formally end more than 50 years of Cold War hostilities between Washington and Pyongyang.
Senior U.S. officials say they are exploring how to implement a peace accord to officially end the 1950-53 Korean War. They say the U.S. hopes to start discussions with North Korea as soon as year end.
In February, North Korea pledged to begin dismantling its nuclear-weapons program in exchange for economic aid and eventually diplomatic relations with the U.S. and its Asian allies. The agreement followed years of on-again, off-again talks involving North Korea, South Korea, the U.S., Japan, Russia and China.
Now, some Bush administration officials hope those so-called six-party talks can evolve into a permanent forum for defusing security threats in Northeast Asia at a time when both Japan and China are bulking up militarily.
After months of delay, signs have emerged in the past few weeks that Pyongyang is moving ahead with its disarmament pledge. By mid-July North Korea is expected to have shut down its Yongbyon nuclear reactor in return for an aid shipment of 50,000 tons of fuel oil, as part of a gradual process that envisions the country eventually normalizing its relations with the U.S., Japan and South Korea.
The recent signals have raised guarded hopes that progress can finally begin toward a formal peace on the Korean peninsula, where a truce has prevailed since 1953. "It's an anachronism we're dealing with," says a senior U.S. official, referring to the continued military standoff there. "We need to make the place more normal."
A broader problem is that the region lacks any formal body to resolve security disputes. As a result, conflicts over territory or resources could escalate rapidly. For the past five decades, the U.S. and its allies have largely sought to ensure regional security through military alliances and U.S. forces stationed in South Korea and Japan.
Since the mid-1990s, the nations now involved in the six-party talks have informally addressed regional security issues through the Northeast Asia Cooperation Dialogue. The nonofficial body has held annual meetings in which diplomats, academics and military officers from the six countries have discussed issues such as China's mounting military might and North Korean economic reform.
But U.S. officials say a permanent regional security body could provide a channel for Asian nations to resolve disputes -- and would ensure a continued U.S. presence in the region.
U.S. and Asian diplomats foresee a forum along the lines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The 56-member OSCE, for example, aims to avert or contain economic conflicts or potential security threats, and has been credited with helping manage Europe's rapid transformation after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Bush administration officials stress that pursuing broader regional security aims in Northeast Asia would be contingent upon North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's regime permanently dismantling its nuclear-arms programs.
Two weeks ago, Pyongyang allowed a visit by a diplomatic team from the International Atomic Energy Agency, paving the way for the return of weapons monitors this month. IAEA staffers say North Korea is beginning to prepare for the shutdown of Yongbyon, the plutonium-based reactor the U.S. believes has produced enough fuel for as many as 10 atomic bombs. Pyongyang tested a nuclear device last fall.
The second phase of the disarmament process could prove tougher to implement. North Korea is required to declare any advances it may have secretly made in developing a second nuclear-fuel cycle, based on uranium, and the amount of plutonium it has extracted from the Yongbyon reactor's spent fuel. Some U.S. negotiators fear Pyongyang's military could view these steps as the equivalent of providing strategic secrets to the enemy.
If the disarmament process proceeds, the Bush administration hopes to start discussing a formal peace treaty with Pyongyang by year end, says Christopher Hill, the assistant secretary of state leading Washington's talks with North Korea. A working group headed by Russia, meanwhile, has begun to look into longer-term security arrangements in Northeast Asia.
The U.S. has held meetings with both South Korea and Japan on how to frame a permanent peace on the peninsula, U.S. diplomats say. A crucial issue is how to maintain Washington's military alliances with the two nations if the North Korean threat -- which has been the main justification for those alliances -- disappears.
Lim Sungnam, South Korea's deputy envoy to the six-party talks, said in an interview that Seoul would like to see the peace process take place "sooner rather than later," but that the six countries haven't yet discussed precise timing. Nor has Seoul started to focus on details like the future of U.S. troops in the region.
Mr. Lim says the key thing is that North Korea first fulfill its pledge to denuclearize, and not use the complex issues involved in any peace process as an excuse for further delays.
Japan would like to see more stability in the region, especially given China's rise as a regional power, though it has its own tensions with North Korea. Tokyo began talks with Pyongyang in 1991 aimed at establishing diplomatic ties but abandoned them in 2002, after evidence emerged that North Korea had abducted Japanese citizens in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Pyongyang's test-firing of missiles into the Sea of Japan in July 2006 further raised tensions.
Many regional analysts say that merging the interests of South Korea and Japan will be a crucial step in laying a groundwork for peace with Pyongyang.
In studying a possible approach to formal peace talks, U.S. officials are dusting off models explored by previous U.S. administrations. They range from holding direct talks with North Korea to four-party discussions including U.S., North Korea, South Korea and China, to today's six-party format.
U.S. and Korean officials said the four-party format appears most likely; the U.S. views Beijing's and Seoul's participation as central to a lasting peace.
While Beijing backs a peace deal, it could seek to distance itself from any direct involvement. China's Communist government traditionally has been an ally of North Korea's, but has grown increasingly fed up with Pyongyang. It is also eager to be regarded as more in step with the rest of the world.
Participating directly in peace talks could put Beijing in the uncomfortable situation of having to side with Pyongyang. "China wouldn't mind just outsourcing responsibility on this matter," says Jin Canrong, an associate dean at Renmin University of China.
A key issue will be the nearly 30,000 U.S. troops still in South Korea. U.S. forces were first sent there in 1950 after soldiers led by Mr. Kim's father, Kim Il Sung, invaded the South. The two sides later signed a U.N.-brokered armistice, but not a formal peace treaty.
As part of any formal peace pact, North Korea and South Korea would need to agree how to dismantle the demilitarized zone that now divides the two countries. They would also have to resolve significant territorial disputes.
Both Koreas are both publicly committed to reunification, but the terms and time frame remain under debate. South Korean officials say their primary motive is to keep the North "stable." North Korean leaders and left-leaning South Korean politicians have long criticized the U.S. troops in Korea as a tool of American imperialism.
Chinese military planners also would be expected to question the justification for keeping U.S. forces in Korea in the wake of any peace deal. Even some Pentagon planners are skeptical of the need if a formal peace is reached.
Still, many diplomats and analysts said they wouldn't write off a continued U.S. troop presence. Many U.S. and Asian officials who have met with North Koreans say Pyongyang views a longer-term U.S. presence as a potential counterweight to China's growing economic and military might in the region. --Evan Ramstad, Jason Leow and Sebastian Moffett contributed to this article.