Bush forced to talk with North Korea

Retreating under intense pressure from South Korea, China and Japan, the Bush administration announced Jan. 7 that they are willing to hold face-to-face talks with government leaders of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

The administration’s new position came as a result of two days of meetings with envoys from South Korea and Japan.

Observers noted that these gestures in support of multilateral, negotiated settlement of differences with North Korea is in marked contrast to George W. Bush’s refusal to meet with Iraqi officials and his threat of unilateral, preemptive war, even though UN inspectors have not reported finding evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

The Bush administration has faced a diplomatic blitz led by the newly-elected President Roh Moo-Hyun of the Republic of Korea (ROK) who recently traveled to China and maintains contact with Pyongyang to avert a deadly war on the Korean peninsula. Bush said, he believes “diplomacy will work,” after the Jan. 6 meeting between U.S., ROK and Japan. China and Russia are also in favor of diplomatic solutions.

Last year, Bush had included North Korea in his pro-hawk, yet fictional, “axis of evil.” But the Bush administration had been pursuing an aggressive, unilateral policy for Northeast Asia even before the Sept. 11 attacks.

South Korea has been engaging in a “sunshine policy” with its northern brothers and sisters for a number of years seeking, along with the DPRK, to reunite families and create conditions for unification through diplomatic and political engagement. Both the DPRK and ROK seek to peacefully unify their two countries, which have been in an official state of war for the last 50 years. A peace treaty was never signed when the Korean War ended, and the border between the two countries is one of the most militarized in the world. The U.S. has maintained a military presence on the peninsula since the Korean War, with 37,000 troops presently stationed there. U.S. imperialist strategic plans for the region also include a missile defense shield in nearby Japan.

U.S. nuclear weapons have been deployed on the Korean peninsula. But according to the Nautilus Institute, which published U.S. military documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, all U.S. nuclear weapons were withdrawn from South Korea in 1991. “Yet U.S. authorities have never publicly confirmed the withdrawal from the Peninsula, and rumors have persisted – particularly in North and South Korea – that nuclear weapons might still be present,” the Institute said.

The Status of Forces Agreement signed by South Korea and the U.S. has under heavy criticism after two soldiers were acquitted of any wrong doing in the deaths of two teenage Korean girls mowed down by a U.S. mine sweeper.

SOFA agreements mainly allow the U.S. military to operate with impunity in other countries. Originally signed in 1966, it was renegotiated in 1991 and 2001. Anti-U.S. military sentiments are rising in South Korea with the U.S. military seen more as an occupying force. In 2000, the U.S. military came under fire from Korean environmental groups after it was found to have illegally dumped toxic chemicals into Seoul’s Han River.

The recent tensions were heightened after the DPRK re-started a nuclear power plant mothballed in 1994 after signing a treaty with a U.S.- led “international consortium,” and its announcement of a nuclear weapons program.

As part of the treaty, power plants that produce less weapons-grade fuel than the present facilities would be built to help the DPRK overcome its energy and economic problems. Those plants were to be completed by 2003, but because of political and other delays won’t be completed for another five years.

The DPRK considers that U.S. already broke the agreement. They said they are starting up this plant and expelled UN weapons inspectors, stationed there as part of the 1994 agreement, because of energy needs. The Bush administration cut off oil supplies to the country in October.

But the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) gave North Korea a few weeks to come into compliance with its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) obligations, Jan. 6. If the DPRK refuses, the IAEA will refer the matter to the United Nations Security Council for possible sanctions.

The IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei said, “You come into compliance and then all the doors will be open. … There is no fundamental disagreement: The international community is ready to help DPRK, is ready to engage DPRK in a security dialogue, in a dialogue on economic needs…”

China also favors reviving the 1994 agreement under which the DPRK promised to stop work on its nuclear program in exchange for foreign fuel aid from the U.S.-led coalition. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue said, “We hope to see a settlement of the issue through dialogue.”

China and many other countries want to see a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, which Zhang said is “important for the region and the world.” Zhang said the DPRK is a “close neighbor,” and Beijing extends help from time to time.

The author can be reached at talbano@pww.org