Thursday, November 19, 2009

US takes the lead in diplomatic dance

SHANE MCLEOD: The US President Barack Obama has ended his Asian tour by offering an olive branch to North Korea, in a bid to entice the reclusive state to rejoin stalled nuclear talks. President Obama has announced he'll send an envoy to Pyongyang early next month for direct talks - a key demand of the North Korean leadership.

But there are already concerns that the latest manoeuvrings will end up being part of another round of diplomatic dancing without any of the core issues being addressed.

Barney Porter reports.

BARNEY PORTER: President Obama's announcement is the latest carrot to the communist state.

BARACK OBAMA: Our message is clear. If North Korea is prepared to take concrete and irreversible steps to fulfil its obligations and eliminate its nuclear weapons program, the United States will support economic assistance and help promote its full integration in the community of nations. That opportunity and respect will not come with threats. North Korea must live up to its obligations.

BARNEY PORTER: Stephen Bosworth's mission will be to coax the North back to the six-party nuclear disarmament talks, which groups the two Koreas, the United States, China, Russia and Japan.

The talks began more than six years ago and the North still uses its attendance as a bargaining chip. That rankles with President Obama. In a joint media conference with the South Korean President, Lee Myung-Bak, he indicated his frustration with previous efforts to resolve the issue.

BARACK OBAMA: President Lee and I both agree on the need to break the pattern that has existed in the past in which North Korea behaves in a provocative fashion. It then is willing to return to talks, it talks for a while and then leaves the talks seeking further concessions and there is never actually any progress on the core issues.

BARNEY PORTER: Pyongyang's delegation last quit the talks in April, a month before the North staged a second nuclear weapons test. The North Korean leader, Kim Jong-Il, said in October his country was ready to return to the talks but only if bilateral discussions with the United States are satisfactory.

Dr Rod Lyon is the director of the strategy and international program at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. He says he believes the North has three aims.

ROD LYON: It wants nuclear weapons for the long haul. It wants its own version of the US-India nuclear deal whereby the US tolerates it as a nuclear weapon state and agrees to help it regardless of that, and it wants the long term consolidation of Kim Jong-Il's own regime so his successors get their turn in power.

Now six-party talks can't deliver those things, so what is it that the North really wants? It wants, it wants a big shift in the political environments in which more of those things become possible. And it has to do that by pursuing what it now sees as the marginal gains of what it can get from the talks.

BARNEY PORTER: So North Korea is just using the talks to stall?

ROD LYON: Well it wants some outcomes from them. It's testing the water to see what it can get out of South Korea, which has been promising some enticements for return. It wants to test what it can get from the new Democratic Party-led Japan which is also a little more left wing than the previous Japanese government and might be a little more accommodating to a North Korea that had its own ambitions in the region.

It wants to show Beijing that it is willing to succumb to that Chinese pressure to go back to the table again.

BARNEY PORTER: China has actually welcomed the announcement. Does it still wield as much influence?

ROD LYON: This is a hard one to measure because I think the gravitational pull that Beijing exerts upon Pyongyang has in fact been declining ever since the first nuclear test. That is, that year 2006, China made pretty clear that it didn't want to see North Korea do either a ballistic missile test or a nuclear test and both of those things happened.

And I suspect China is now resigned to the fact that its wishes aren't always going to be North Korean policy.

BARNEY PORTER: And Dr Lyon says the future remains uncertain.

ROD LYON: For both North Korea and for the other five members of the six-party talks this is the only game in town right. There are other options but the other options have higher costs, so if you're looking for a peaceful negotiated solution this is the only game in town.

So everyone is going to conspire to come back to the game in town for one more round of cards. What is that going to mean in terms of outcome? It means that I suspect both sides know they're buying time here. The North is buying time so it can do slow motion proliferation but the other five are buying time because they hope for regime collapse somewhere in North Korea's future.

SHANE MCLEOD: Dr Rod Lyon from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and he was speaking to Barney Porter.

Tags : Rod Lyon,Australian Strategic Policy Institute, North Korea, US, President, Barack Obama

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