Diplomacy Under Test, Again

China calls for emergency talks as the U.S. and South Korea conduct joint military exercises following North Korea's attack on the South.
Parameswaran Ponnudurai
South Korean marines carry the portrait of a marine killed in North Korean fire during his funeral in Seongnam, south of Seoul, Nov. 27, 2010.

If there is one crisis where diplomacy has made few inroads, it is the one on North Korea's disarmament.

As tensions run high following North Korea's first deadly attack on civilians in South Korea since their bloody war nearly 60 years ago, the world is again giving diplomacy a chance.

Under immense world pressure to rein in wayward ally North Korea, China has called for emergency talks among six powers to defuse the tense standoff in the divided Korean peninsula—a proposal that may eventually be accepted.

"The Chinese side, after careful study, proposes to have emergency consultations among the heads of delegation to the six-party talks in early December in Beijing to exchange views on major issues of concern to the parties at present," said Wu Dawei, China's top North Korea envoy.

But if past negotiations largely aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear weapons drive are anything to go by, success will be limited.

Swept under the carpet

Even if there is some immediate breakthrough needed to cool down anger running high among South Koreans five days after Pyongyang's attack, it is likely to be temporary, with the core issues swept under the carpet.

This pessimism stems mainly from past actions of both the international community and North Korea, which has been good at extracting concessions and then flouting the rules of the game.

The failure of the international community to take prompt action has been quite clear from the start.

The armistice that was brokered by the United Nations to end the Korean War in 1953 established a demilitarized zone between the two rivals, but there has never been a formal peace treaty between them.

The two Koreas remain technically at war today, nearly 60 years later.

In addition, some of the powers that backed the two Koreas have still not shed the baggage of the Cold War: South Korea was supported by the United Nations—and in particular the United States—with North Korea supported by China and Russia.

All the parties to the six-nation talks—the United States, China, Russia, and the two Koreas, as well as Japan, the former occupier of the whole Korean peninsula—have been involved since 2003 in the forum aimed at disarming North Korea of its atomic weapons.

Two-year limbo in nuclear talks

But the China-hosted talks, which eyed an eventual peace treaty to replace the armistice, have been in limbo over the last two years. North Korea walked away from the forum in response to international sanctions imposed on it for its defiant nuclear and missile tests.

Now, both North Korea and China are eager to restart the talks even though Pyongyang has not lived up to its commitments under the six-party forum.

Even direct disarmament talks between the United States and North Korea have failed to break the deadlock.

Talks collapsed in 2002 after North Korea’s blatant admission that it had been cheating on an aid-for-disarmament deal by enriching uranium, a process that can be used to manufacture nuclear weapons.

The prolonged diplomatic blitz however benefited two parties particularly—North Korea and China.

Pyongyang won economic and fuel-oil aid that helped North Korean leader Kim Jong Il stay in power. The secretive nation also built up sufficient nuclear muscle and firepower to rattle the neighborhood.

"Very steady train of provocation"

Over the last two years, during the vacuum created by the suspension of the six-party talks, North Korea not only tested a nuclear weapon but also, according to expert findings, sank a South Korean warship and killed 46 sailors.

In its latest salvo on Nov. 23, Pyongyang fired artillery shells on Yeonpyeong Island, just 120 km (75 miles) west of Seoul. The attack left two marines and two civilians dead and many injured. It also destroyed houses, buildings, and forests, drawing worldwide condemnation.

"North Korean activities over the past year-and-a-half have followed a very steady train of provocations ... and these are, I think, at a degree much higher than previous provocations we have seen from the North, I mean, really, for 50 years," said Victor Cha, a former Asia director in the White House's National Security Council.

"North Korea has a very potent formula, that is, to provoke and then make a mini-concession and return to the negotiating table to reap concessions, economic compensation, and political compensation. That's been an effective policy for North Korea, unfortunately," he said.

In a show of force following the attack, the United States sent a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to the waters off the Korean peninsula for joint exercises that began Sunday with the South Koreans, much to the chagrin of China and despite warnings from Pyongyang.

North Korea had warned of unpredictable "consequences" if the massive aircraft carrier the George Washington entered the Yellow Sea for the military maneuvers. It also test fired artillery inside its territory as the joint drill began.

Will diplomacy prevail?

As tensions escalate, will diplomacy prevail?

This week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was on the telephone with her Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi, who also was on the line with his South Korean counterpart.

Yang summoned the top North Korean diplomat in Beijing for talks while the Chinese government sent a senior official to Seoul to calm jitters.

South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak told the visiting Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo that Beijing should take "a fairer and more responsible stance in its relations with the two Koreas," the presidential office said.

Lee added that the South "has tolerated the North's constant provocations since the  Korean War but would respond strongly if the North makes an additional provocation."

The big question is whether China is serious about wanting to rein in North Korea.

It has refused to reprimand North Korea for the deadly artillery attack or the for the alleged sinking of the South Korean warship.

Some analysts say China is caught between a rock and a hard place.

China's worry over refugee influx

With a fragile political transition under way in North Korea, Beijing is trying to maintain stability in the unpredictable but ruthless neighboring nation. Any overblown crisis would see thousands of refugees at its doorstep.

In addition, any action that destabilizes the Kim regime and that results in its eventual collapse as well as the impoverished North’s eventual reunification with its prosperous U.S.-backed southern neighbor could pose a permanent threat to China.

"China has preferred the stability of the repulsive Northern regime to the good will of the people of South Korea, to ultimate reunification of the peninsula, and to peace and stability in the region," said Douglas Paal, an expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"But plainly the regime itself is the source of instability, ending the notion that there is a choice between stability and instability. And Pyongyang is directly damaging China’s interests," he said.

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