Conversation #6

In which Pak Kim Li and Erich Weingartner discuss who is to blame for the stalled 6-Party Talks in the fall of USelection year 2008. (First published in CanKor Report 305-306, 25 April 2008.)

Erich Heinz Weingartner: So it looks like we’re back at square one.

Pak Kim Li: Not square one.

EHW: The Six-Party Talks are stalled; North and South Korea are trading insults again…

PKL: You Westerners have a strange concept of time.

EHW: Yes, so you told me before. We’re linear and you Asians are circular. “Square one” is a game metaphor — specifically the game “Monopoly”, where you can be penalized and sent back to the beginning of the game.

PKL: It’s a bad metaphor for where we are now.

EHW: Alright, let’s do it your way: “What goes around comes around.” Same difference.

PKL: Not the same. The seasons are circular, but that doesn’t mean each spring is the same as the last.

EHW: Okay, let’s forget the metaphors. Why is your government stalling on the nuclear programmes list?

PKL: We are not stalling. We showed a list to [chief US negotiator Christopher] Hill already last November. The question you should be asking is why the American administration is stalling on taking us off the sponsors of terrorism list!

EHW: You can’t equate the significance of those two agendas.

PKL: I’m not interested in comparisons. I am referring to process here. Our agreement was “words for words” and “actions for actions”. We had a timetable specifying each party’s responsibilities.

EHW: Which you have now broken by not submitting a complete list of your nuclear facilities by the end of last year.

PKL: You are not listening to me. We informed the USA already last November about the contents of the required declaration.

EHW: That was clearly an incomplete list, without any mention of uranium enrichment.

PKL: We revised the list. We tried to meet Hill’s concerns. We tried to show him a revised list early this year to get his advice. He refused to look at it. We readied an official list to give to [US Secretary of State Condoleezza] Rice at the time of the New York Philharmonic concert in Pyongyang, but she decided not to attend. Let me assure you, Mr. Erich, we have acted with sincerity and integrity. We have never broken off negotiations. We have been ready at any time to have further discussions. We have welcomed all US government delegations to Pyongyang, most recently this week. We are absolutely serious about the Six-Party process — which, I would like to remind you, is meant to build confidence between the USA and us to the point where we can stop being enemies and finally turn the Armistice Agreement into a peace treaty.

EHW: And that confidence has now been shattered by your refusal…

PKL: …by the US refusal to move ahead with the delisting…

EHW: Mr. Pak, can’t you see how childish all this is? Like kids calling each other names in the playground. Surely you of all people, living in New York, surrounded by Americans, reading the New York Times and watching CNN — can’t you see that moving on the terrorism list is politically impossible?

PKL: If you had said it is impossible to do away with the sanctions at this point, I might have understood. That requires Congressional approval. But the terrorism list is the prerogative of the president. It could be done from one moment to the next. Where is the problem?

EHW: The problem is that it would be highly unpopular, especially in an election year, and especially for the Republicans, who have enough problems as it is.

PKL: Thank you for stating our point so succinctly. Whenever we deal with the Americans, we have to remember Henry Kissinger’s insight that the USA has no foreign policy. Whenever they deal with us, you may be sure that they expect us to satisfy only their own domestic priorities.

EHW: Why should you care, as long as you get what you want?

PKL: That’s a Canadian talking. I can understand from your perspective. You have to live with them as a powerful neighbour. Like we live with the Chinese. There are two reasons why we care. The first is that we have learned from centuries of experience that it is useful to stick to our principles when dealing with more powerful neighbours. The second is that we are NOT getting what we want.

EHW: YOU aren’t getting what YOU want. THEY aren’t getting what THEY want. Neither side gets what they want or need. A lose-lose proposition. The worst possible outcome in any negotiations.

PKL: What choice do we have?

EHW: Why not call their bluff? Give them the list of your facilities and force them to take it to the next level.

PKL: We thought that is exactly what we did. We dismantled our nuclear reactors to the extent that even American experts agree that it would take us 6 months to a year to restart plutonium production. This was a major step and a major risk for us. Because of US insistence about suspected uranium enrichment, and because we were aware that the US administration needed to “save face” regarding its earlier allegations, we even gave them samples of aluminium tubes. Now they want us to admit that we helped Syria build a nuclear reactor. How can we continue to back down without a comparable gesture on their side?

EHW: You were given oil. You were given equipment. You were paid for the steps you took.

PKL: A drop in the barrel.

EHW: A drop in the bucket.

PKL: Barrel… You know… oil!

EHW: Funny.

PKL: The point here is that the DPRK and the USA are expected to shoulder a disproportionate level of risk in these negotiations. It is very easy for a rich man to purchase the compliance of the poor. There is neither risk nor pain for the rich man. He can even afford to be generous. The poor man doesn’t have the same latitude. Each agreement with the rich man can mean further enslavement for himself and his entire family. That is the dilemma we are facing. The Americans have to show us more than money. They have to prove to us their sincerity by taking on a comparable level of risk. If the President of the United States of America cannot make the one gesture that is fully within his power — thereby showing his willingness to risk even a small number of votes in the coming elections — how can we put our trust in the USA’s domestic political process to meet our expectations?

EHW: Mr. Pak, it’s a list. It’s a piece of paper! The CIA already knows what should be on that list. What is the risk you are running with that?

PKL: What the CIA knows and what it says are two different things. Let us not be naïve.

EHW: And what you know and say are the same?

PKL: We have learned the hard way that public declarations can easily be used against us. Do you remember the Pyongyang Declaration?

EHW: The agreement signed by Chairman Kim Jong Il and Prime Minister Koizumi in 2002.

PKL: “Tell us what you know about the missing Japanese citizens,” they told us, “and we will normalize relations and offer economic assistance.”

EHW: And your leader for the first time admitted that DPRK agents had kidnapped Japanese youngsters to help train North Korean spies…

PKL: We supplied information about the missing Japanese citizens that we knew about; we provided their names and whereabouts. A list, Mr. Erich? Just a piece of paper? We did more than that. We even allowed them to return to Japan. It was part of the process of normalization and reconciliation. And what was the outcome?

EHW: The Japanese people were outraged and Koizumi found it politically impossible to follow through on normalization.

PKL: The Japanese right wing criminals used the abductees’ issue not only to destroy all hope of improved relations, but to agitate for the re-militarization of Japan. A goodwill gesture was turned into a powerful weapon against us — a weapon that could also have destroyed the Six-Party Talks, if the reputation of both China and the USA had not been so heavily invested.

EHW: And you’re afraid the same could happen with this list of nuclear weapons items that you have already agreed to dismantle. Isn’t that somewhat paranoid? Surely the two are entirely unrelated.

PKL: They are very much related. You forget that the Pyongyang Declaration was signed in September 2002, and the current nuclear crisis began in October 2002.

EHW: I get it. You’re afraid the list is a trap. Tell them “no” to [uranium enrichment] centrifuges, they will say “incomplete”. Say “yes” to centrifuges, and they’ll call you liars and untrustworthy agreement violators.

PKL: That is already happening. The USA keeps adding things for us to admit to. If it isn’t centrifuges, it’s human rights. If it isn’t human rights, it’s nuclear proliferation to Syria. The Syrian issue has nothing to do with us! It has a lot to do with American interests in the Middle East.

EHW: I thought you had reached a deal with Hill in Singapore a couple of weeks ago. I read that you would provide a declaration of the amount of plutonium in your possession, and the USA would accept a secret side agreement in which you would “acknowledge” US claims about proliferation to Syria and an “alleged” uranium enrichment programme.

PKL: It was an attempt at a compromise to save the “face” of Bush and Rice. And Hill hasn’t fared well since then, has he? Republicans in Congress have demanded an intelligence briefing on the non-existent DPRK-Syrian connection. It has given ammunition to Vice-President Dick Cheney and his neo-con allies to kill the entire Six-Party process.

EHW: I’m not going to deny the White House’s track record of flip-flop diplomacy. The latest I read is that Condi [Rice] has been ordered to chastise Hill for Singapore. There are even rumours that he may be dismissed from his job.

PKL: It isn’t just this administration. We concluded major agreements with President Clinton in 2000 and four months later we have to deal with President “axis of evil” Bush. We sign a major agreement with south Korean President Roh Moo Hyun at the Pyongyang summit last October, and four months later we are under attack by their new President Lee Myung Bak.

EHW: That’s democracy for you!

PKL: Your version of democracy is a very unreliable form of government. It took 8 years for us to educate Clinton, and then it took us another 8 years to educate Bush to the point where Clinton was in 1994.

EHW: This is election year in the USA. Maybe you’ll get lucky with another Clinton!

PKL: You once taught me how the stock market works. The higher the risk, you told me, the higher the potential profit or loss. With the Six-Party process, my country is absorbing a very high level of risk — far greater than any of the other five parties. We entered the process in good faith in the hopes that the end result would be a definitive peace agreement that would make our nuclear weapons capability irrelevant. That was our bottom line when we started, and that is still our bottom line. For the other five parties, the risk of failure is merely another diplomatic annoyance. For us the risk of failure is our very survival. And you know well that we have no guarantee that we will be compensated for our risks. We would appreciate even a semblance of risk sharing.

EHW: So what’s the solution?

PKL: There is no ultimate solution. There is only the process. It’s a continuous struggle. We have a longer view of life than your electoral terms.

EHW: Circular time.

PKL: It’s the one advantage we can count on.

EHW: You’re content to wait for the chips to fall…

PKL: …or the penny to drop.

EHW: Mr. Pak, I thank you for this conversation.

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