SwitzerlandAs clouds continue gathering over the Middle East, those
over East Asia are parting. It now seems possible that the current crisis over
Pyongyang's nuclear moves will not merely be resolved but could finally lead to
the opening of the North to a wider world. Optimism has been dashed before - by
the death of Kim Il Sung in 1994, by the narrow failure to achieve a
breakthrough with the United States in the last days of the Clinton
administration, and by the North's reluctance to build on the summit of the two
Kims in 2000. But there is a growing consensus among the North's neighbors that
Kim Jong Il's agenda can be summed up in the phrase "change without regime
No North Koreans showed up at Davos, but
there have been opportunities for exchanges here between key players and
intermediaries, including the chief Clinton era U.S. contact, Bill Richardson,
now governor of New Mexico, the United Nations special envoy and a frequent
visitor to Pyongyang, Maurice Strong, and Japan's deputy foreign minister,
Ichiro Fujisaki. Even Mongolia's prime minister, Nambar Enkhbayar, has been
involved in the efforts to move Pyongyang, along with emissaries from Russia and
Slowly the effort has been bearing fruit.
Pyongyang is to entertain an envoy from the South to discuss the nuclear issue,
which in the past it has been prepared to discuss only with the United States.
Indeed, its willingness to receive various envoys, rather than sit tight on its
obsession with dealing directly with Washington, is a sign of a change of
At the same time there is now a
likelihood of talks at a technical level with the United States that should lead
to more substantive discussions. The United Nations is pressing for new
commitments to humanitarian aid that would help underpin the progress.
This is of course nuclear blackmail. But
if, as the neighbors clearly believe, Kim Jong Il is intent not just on aid to
ward off hunger but also on major (by his standards) economic opening as part of
a package deal, the price is worth paying. That is especially so for the South,
which wants Chinese-style opening, from which it will be the primary
beneficiary, without regime change.
Indeed, Seoul is believed to be readying
aid and investment on a much bigger scale than in the past, should it be
possible to resolve the nuclear question and achieve a Pyongyang-Washington
agreement. Time is more on the side of the South. Although delays would allow
the North to again be producing plutonium, Kim's pressing need is for funds to
underpin the economic changes - a more rational and decentralized pricing and
wage system - introduced last year.
Needless to say, a beggar state is no
position to start a war. The gap between Washington and Pyongyang is not as wide
as it might seem. The nuclear issue revolves not so much around whether the
North already has a couple of crude weapons; that would be a blow for those
focusing on nonproliferation but is of no great consequence to the South. The
key question is whether it now will not acquire the plutonium to build more.
The North insists that it is willing to
go back to the 1994 accord and to give access to inspectors if it gets what it
thinks it is entitled to under that accord. The United States meanwhile has
reaffirmed that it has no intention of attacking the North to resolve the
It should be possible slowly to move both
sides toward something between the U.S. informal commitment and the
nonaggression treaty sought by Pyongyang, perhaps through some parallel
statements and a timetable for normalization of relations.
It is possible that hard-liners in
Pyongyang will prevail and block Kim. Some resent the 1994 accord, fear economic
opening and remain so distrustful of the South and the United States that they
see nuclear weapons as their only sure means of defense.
But the sensible reaction of other
actors, including the United States and Japan as well as quasi-friends China and
Russia, to the North's nuclear moves should help erode its distrust and paranoia
stemming from years of isolation and fear of its own weakness. These are the
main obstacles to moving Kim from clever tactical brinkmanship to a strategy for
re-entry into the East Asian world.