EXPERTS TACKLE TOUGHEST, PERHAPS UNSOLVABLE ISSUES ON NORTH KOREA

HONOLULU (Aug. 24) -- The East-West Center hosted the 5th Annual Senior Seminar Aug. 17-19, a gathering of 32 distinguished diplomats and other government officials, academics, economists and business leaders to discuss security and other important issues in the Asia-Pacific region. They represented Pakistan, South Korea, Indonesia, the United States, Australia, Bangladesh, China, India, Japan, Taiwan, Thailand and the Philippines.

North Korea was a major focus, with experts tackling the most difficult, and perhaps unsolvable issues that will face the six-country talks scheduled to start in Beijing Aug. 27.  Among the basic questions: Is North Korea capable of making timely decisions or joining, much less succeeding in the international community? Can the Pyongyang regime survive, with or without nuclear weapons? A number of experts believe the answers are no, which leads to more serious questions: Can the world live with a nuclear North Korea? With the current North Korea regime?

Seminar participants agreed that nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula must be avoided, but at what costs? Participants also agreed that the six-party talks are a good step forward but that having more players at the table will present challenges -- reflected in the different opinions offered during the seminar. If North Korea wants security guarantees, all six countries must be involved in the discussion.

Each of the countries at the talks this week has its own priorities. China will tell North Korea it's the "end of the free ride." South Korea faces a Catch-22: it wants a diplomatic solution, not a military one. But since North Korea is clearly using its nuclear weapons program as a negotiating chip, South Korea will be more willing to follow a hard U.S.-Japan line. China will face a "moment of truth" about what to do if it can't convince Pyongyang to give up its WMD. Washington will face the same if neighbor countries can't convince North Korea to change.

The Bush administration has stated that it can live with a non-nuclear regime. But participants were uncertain whether President George Bush, who has made explicit "his disgust" for the North Korean regime, can contemplate assuring its survival.

The fundamental questions remain: Can the United States live with a nuclear North Korea or with the current regime if it remains unchanged?

American experts offered a variety of comments regarding the dilemma faced by U.S. foreign policymakers:

J. STAPLETON ROY, managing director, Kissinger Associates, Inc., former ambassador to China, Indonesia and Singapore: Roy questioned whether North Korea was capable of joining the international community in light of failed attempts by China and South Korea to help the impoverished country. Cutting its military capabilities is not a guarantee that North Korea will develop, and he questioned whether the regime could survive under any circumstances.

With no clear assurances that disarmament in North Korea could be verified, similar to Iraq, he asked if regime change might be the only alternative, and if so, how that could be accomplished.

STEPHEN BOSWORTH, dean, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, and former ambassador to South Korea and the Philippines: Bosworth said China's active engagement has been decisive and that the United States was right to stick to its demands for multilateral talks. Still, the "key deal" must be struck between the United States and North Korea, since only the United States can provide what Pyongyang wants -- assurance it won't be attacked. If there is an agreement, it will be a "bilateral agreement in multilateral ribbons."

Bosworth also said he doesn't believe North Korea is capable of reforming.

RALPH COSSA, president, Pacific Forum/CSIS, Honolulu: "While few would shed a tear over regime change in North Korea, President Bush has said that his administration can live with the Kim Jong-il regime if it gives up its nuclear weapons program. But many, including Pyongyang, are skeptical." 

Cossa said South Korea and China have both stated that their current support to North Korea would be threatened if North Korea continues to pursue nuclear weapons, but it's not clear that Pyongyang believes this. Unless, and until it does, the talks will be difficult.

"We need to convince the North Koreans that possessing nuclear weapons makes them less, rather than more secure; that the disadvantages outweigh the advantages."

ROBERT EINHORN, senior adviser, International Security Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington: "I'm not optimistic we're going to prevent North Korea from becoming a permanent nuclear weapon state, which could get other dominoes to fall," he said, referring to other countries in the region developing nuclear weapons. "We must reinforce the non-nuclear status of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, and we need to start now."

Einhorn said that if North Korea was genuinely willing to give up its nuclear program, it would only do so in increments. "I don't think the Bush administration will be patient."   By stressing the dangers of proliferation by rogue states, Bush has conveyed the impression that he distinguishes between good proliferation and bad proliferation, and is therefore prepared to tolerate proliferation by friendly states, Einhorn said. "But even friendly governments going nuclear would be profoundly destabilizing. We've got to continue dissuading them."

THOMAS HUBBARD, U.S. ambassador to South Korea, in comments to journalists in Hawaii: Hubbard said there was "some degree of hope or optimism" about the Beijing talks but didn't predict early or quick results. "We're prepared to take time to do this right."

Asked about a non-aggression agreement with North Korea, he said the real issue was whether North Korea would change. If it does, "there should be some way of formulating our non- aggressive intent."

He said President Bush has no intention of invading North Korea, nor was there a policy to press for a change of leadership. "We're aiming at behavioral change." But he said the end of North Korea's WMD program must be "complete, verifiable, non-reversible."

He also said a U.S.-North Korea agreement was not sought but rather a "broader agreement." He said multilateral talks were the right formula in dealing with North Korea and that China's role was a very positive sign offering "some glimmer of hope."  

For more information about the seminar and participants, contact Susan Kreifels at the East-West Center: 808-944-7176 or kreifels@eastwestcenter.org

The East-West Wire is a news service provided by the East-West Center in Honolulu. Any or all of this report may be used with attribution to the East-West Center or to the person quoted.

For more information, contact Susan Kreifels at 808-944-7176 or EastWestWire@EastWestCenter.org

For a directory to all East-West Wire reports, see http://www.eastwestcenter.org/events-en.asp 

For daily news on the Pacific Islands, see http://pidp.eastwestcenter.org/pireport/text.htm  

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