June 23, 2009 — Diplomatic efforts are in full swing to forge a united front against North Korea, which has continued its threats of aggression in defiance of U.N. sanctions that followed its test of a nuclear weapon.
The diplomatic campaign is largely aimed at launching five-way talks involving the United States, South Korea, China, Russia and Japan, to replace the long-stalled six-party negotiations that included North Korea.
The idea of five-nation talks was raised by South Korean President Lee Myung-bak when he met U.S. President Barack Obama last week for discussions that focused primarily on how to deal with North Korea's nuclear threats.
The new dialogue formula calls for the five nations to "fully discuss concerted measures” in dealing with North Korea. After such discussions the United States, representing the five countries, would contact the communist nation for a showdown to end the decade-long nuclear standoff, according to diplomatic sources in Seoul.
South Korea's chief nuclear envoy Wi Sung-lac left for Moscow on Tuesday to meet his Russian counterpart, Alexei Borodavkin, to discuss the proposed five-nation formula.
"I will discuss the issue of implementing the U.N. Security Council resolution (against North Korea) and ways to resume dialogue with North Korea," Wi told reporters just before departure. "There has been some progress in launching the five-party talks," he said.
In another diplomatic effort, South Korea's Parliament invited ambassadors from the United States, China, Russia and Japan on Tuesday to a forum on North Korea and the proposed five-nation talks.
Russia has formally expressed support for the five-way session. "Russia supports five-way consultations to decide additional measures to deal with the current crisis," Russia's Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Monday.
Japan, which has refused to fund an energy aid deal for North Korea until progress is made in ending the issue of its nationals abducted by North Korea, has also promised to join the five-nation talks to put more pressure on Pyongyang.
China, the host of the six-party talks, is still unresponsive. Beijing, Pyongyang's closest traditional ally, approved U.N. Resolution 1874 that strengthens arms embargo and trade restrictions on the North. But it is unclear that China would accept the five-way formula.
In order to win China's participation, South Korean officials said the proposed talks would not be an alternative to the six-party format, but a way to break the deadlock.
The United States dispatched a military delegation led by Michele Flournoy, undersecretary for defense, to Beijing on Tuesday to urge China to support international pressure on North Korea. These will be the first defense consultative talks between the two countries since December 2007. The U.S. team will also travel to Seoul and Tokyo this week.
According to South Korea's leading newspaper, Chosun Ilbo, on Monday, the United States is considering sending former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to Beijing to win its cooperation in dealing with North Korea.
South Korean officials said the five-party framework would be more effective in coordinating policy toward North Korea and pressing the defiant country to abandon its nuclear bombs and other weapons of mass destruction.
Initiated in 2003, the existing six-way disarmament dialogue has served as the main framework for discussions on ending the nuclear crisis. But critics say the multilateral forum has rather been used by North Korea to buy time to increase its nuclear arsenal, evidenced by its nuclear and ballistic missile tests earlier this year.
President Lee has stressed the need to break the "pattern" in which North Korea's military threats are emboldened by concessions from the international community. He called for a "new approach" to replace the troubled six-way talks.
Just ahead of his summit with Obama, Lee floated the idea of the five-party formula, saying North Korea has "gained, or bought, a lot of time through the six-party talks framework to pursue its own agenda." He told the Wall Street Journal, "I think it's important now, at this critical point in time, for us not to repeat any past mistakes."
The Center for a New American Security, a U.S. think tank, says the proposed five-party dialogue could help the Obama administration achieve two strategic goals – strengthening its commitment to Northeast Asian allies and denuclearizing the Korean peninsula. The five-party talks would also demonstrate that U.S. strategy is not captive to "North Korean gamesmanship," it said.
South Korean officials expressed hope that the first session of the five-nation talks could be held on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum to be held next month in Phuket, Thailand.
But many analysts in Seoul remain cautious, saying China holds the key in launching the five-nation talks and forging a united front against North Korea. Some say China seems reluctant to further isolate its neighbor, as it could increase instability in North Korea.
“It might seem that China is positioned to exercise great influence on North Korea. However, even if it has some potential to influence the North, it is not too eager to use this potential," Andrei Lankov, a Russian-born North Korea specialist at Kookmin University in Seoul, told a South Korean newspaper.