Tuesday, March 08, 2005

North Korea's stalling ploy

The Straits Times, Editorial, March 7, 2005

IT IS tempting to see North Korean leader Kim Jong Il as a clown. But that would be a mistake. Behind the hair style, the ridiculous 'Dear Leader' title and the comic - but frightening - personality cult, Mr Kim is a shrewd manipulator. Even as the world struggles to rein in North Korea's nuclear ambitions, Mr Kim has successfully redefined the agenda. Instead of talking about how to end Pyongyang's nuclear programme, the world instead is now frantically focused on simply how to get the North back to the bargaining table. Any substantive negotiations on the nuclear issue are on the backburner. After three rounds of six-party talks between the North and the United States, South Korea, Japan, China and Russia, the world is hopelessly back at square one. Meanwhile, Mr Kim has bought himself more time for his clandestine programme, and an opportunity to bargain for fresh concessions - possibly, a security guarantee from the US - before even the matter of nukes is brought up. Clever.

The fourth round of talks was supposed to have taken place last September. But it was always clear that Pyongyang would delay this to see who would win the November US presidential elections. Mr George W. Bush's victory meant that the North would continue to face a tough line. Hence Pyongyang's earlier announcement that it was pulling out of the six-party talks, its claim that it had nuclear weapons and then, last week, that it could again conduct missile tests are attempts to raise the ante.

North Korea's nuclear adventurism is a serious business, one made even more urgent by credible fears over possible proliferation. It is crucial that Pyongyang is quickly hauled back to the table and for substantive negotiations to resume. But this must be accomplished without any new concessions to Pyongyang, especially before the key nuclear issue is even on the agenda. Realistically, the only party able to twist Mr Kim's arm in this way is China, the one with the best leverage over the North. It is time Beijing acts to bring about this outcome. After all, the importance of doing this is clear to China, which is wary of the strategic implications for itself that an unambiguously nuclearised Korean peninsula would set in motion.

The stakes are too big for the world to let itself be manipulated by the self-styled Dear Leader.

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