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North Korea: Why US won't peel the onion
By Jaewoo Choo

SEOUL - The recent shuttle diplomacy by Chinese Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi, traveling to Washington and Pyongyang in recent days, may be called a success, as it drew promises from both North Korea and the United States to resume talks on the North's nuclear problem, this time in a six-party frame. Wang's shuttle diplomacy was reminiscent of that of former South Korean foreign minister Dr Han Sung Joo during the first nuclear crisis in 1993-94, when he traveled to Moscow, Tokyo, Washington, Beijing and Seoul.

It was certainly great news that North Korea and the US had agreed to accept what the majority of the states neighboring the Korean Peninsula perceive as the most viable framework in which a peaceful solution of the North's nuclear problem should be pursued. Nonetheless, one has to wonder what brought them finally to accept the idea of the six-party talks after their long-standing argument on the preconditions for any form of multilateral talks, which at one point seemed to be going nowhere. While North Korea stubbornly demanded that the United States include a non-aggression agreement and a guarantee of the security of its regime as prerequisites for the talks, the US was not ready to make any concessions until it halted all of its nuclear programs. Now the word is that six-party talks are to be held in late August in Beijing.

If the talks go ahead as scheduled, then a very simple question can naturally be asked: Can we allow our hopes to run high on the prospects of a peaceful solution to the nuclear problem? If a non-invasion agreement were to be achieved between North Korea and the US as well as a guarantee of the survival of the Pyongyang regime, then what are the prospects for the current Korean War armistice that was ratified by the United States, North Korea and China being replaced by a "peace treaty"?

All the aforementioned variables are key to the answer for a formal peace treaty on the Korean Peninsula. However, the peace-treaty question would have to be answered by the United States. Whether it will agree to a guarantee not to invade North Korea under any circumstances is a problem that the US will have to ponder for some time. Whether it is willing to continue to deal with Kim Jong-il for the coming years will present a serious challenge as long as the animosity toward Kim currently held by the administration of President George W Bush persists.

Even if Bush accepts North Korea's two preconditions before the six-party talks, the road to a peaceful solution of the nuclear problem will be a very long and winding one. This is not so much because of North Korea's demands as because of the constitutional restraints that the US has imposed on itself when it comes to dealing with Pyongyang. Installing an artificial peace on the Korean Peninsula by way of the United States' nominal acceptance of a "peace treaty" is not going to lead to a permanent peace.

For peace actually to exist on the peninsula, North Korea would have to be able to survive on its own. While neighboring states can continue to lend a hand, they cannot afford to keep rendering free aid and assistance to a state that is not capable of managing them. It will have to learn how to survive on its own, not on the terms of others that are supposed to guarantee its regime's safety and survival. To this end, the United States will have to give serious consideration to whether it should lift its sanctions against North Korea.

Removal of sanctions would be a long-term struggle for both the US administration and Congress, regardless of party and leadership. This is because of all the labels the US has attached to North Korea. It is an adversary state, an enemy that made the United States bleed in the 1950s. It is a rogue state, a designation it shares with six other states in the world because of their diplomatic behavior. Because it is a communist, Marxist-Leninist state, it is barred from conducting any commercial or economic transaction with the US and from receiving foreign assistance from international financial institutions. For its active participation in terrorism, it is liable to further sanction. And last but not least, it is a member of the "axis of evil".

Under the circumstances, for the US to remove all these labels it has put on North Korea and lift the sanctions demanded by each label, it will be like peeling an onion skin, an endless task.

Luckily enough, being an "axis of evil" member does not bind North Korea to any type of sanction by the US constitution or law - this particular label is nothing more than diplomatic rhetoric. By contrast, such labels as a "rogue state" or "adversarial state" carry much more important implications for the prospect of relations between the United States and North Korea. The relationship is constrained by all and any legal means by the US.

Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, the US has adopted too many sanctions against North Korea. In fact, the first sanction was adopted before the war ended, in 1951. As a sanction against a non-market state, the Trade Agreement Extension Act of 1951 was applied to North Korea. That act required the suspension of Most Favored Nation trade status. Ever since then, North Korea has been embargoed with many more types of sanction.

First, since it posed a threat to US national security, North Korea was subject to the Trading with the Enemy Act and National Emergencies Act. In the wake of the Korean War, the United States invoked a total embargo on exports to North Korea. Over the years, export controls were restated as the Export Administration Regulations (EARs). According to this restriction, North Korea was classified as a member of Country Group Z, the most restricted lot.

In 1989, the EARs were modified to allow the export to North Korea of commercially supplied goods intended to meet basic human needs. Shipment of these goods required validation on a case-by-case basis. In September 1999, president Bill Clinton formally announced the removal of most export restrictions applied to North Korea, at least in theory.

Second, North Korea has long been regarded as a state sponsor or supporter of international terrorism, pursuant to the Export Administration Act of 1979. Third, for being a Marxist-Leninist state, it is subject to the Export-Import Bank Act of 1945, and is further restricted under the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961. One of the main features of these acts is that the United States is required by law to oppose membership in the international financial institutions or financial support to terrorist states, including North Korea.

Fourth, pursuant to its label as a rogue state for proliferating weapons of mass destruction, North Korea has been made subject to the Arms Export Control Act, the Export Administration Act of 1979, and the Iran Proliferation Act of 2000. According to the Arms Export Control Act, the United States bans "export, directly or indirectly, of any munitions item, lease or loan, credits, guarantees, or other financial assistance to a terrorist country". It further "prohibits US individuals from engaging in such trade or support of such a country".

For all these legal constraints to be removed and for peace to come into existence in the bilateral relationship between the US and North Korea, as seen above, the key is obviously in the United States' hands. If we truly understand the long and winding process for amending a law in US politics, not too many of us can blame Pyongyang for relying on unconventional bargaining tactics for its survival. Whether North Korea knows the US political system well enough to employ such preconditions for its participation in the six-party talks is not clear.

However, if we were to look at the other side of the coin, the US may be well aware of the true meanings of the layers it has put on North Korea. It may have already decided that it is better off with the status quo than with a peaceful solution to the current crisis. Perhaps Washington realizes that dragging out the crisis will eventually exhaust its opponent to the point of surrender. In the meantime, the US would be able to shift the momentum toward its own side and turn the course to its favor, thereby allowing itself to achieve the domestic and international goals it sees as more important than formal peace on the Korean Peninsula.

Under this scenario, all the hype about the prospects of the six-party talks for bringing about a peaceful solution to the nuclear problem would fizzle away easily, and the "nuclear crisis" story would continue like a broken record for years to come.

Jaewoo Choo, PhD, is a research fellow with the Trade Research Institute, Seoul. The opinions expressed in this article are his own.

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Aug 15, 2003



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