Scheduled for April 23, negotiations between US and North Korean diplomats in Beijing are curious in many ways.
At the end of last week, for example, specialists on Korea in Washington long tried to guess what was meant by a strange remark made by the North Korean Foreign Ministry. At first, the Americans interpreted it as an announcement that the North completed the processing of 8,000 spent fuel rods /meaning that it is prepared to make an atom bomb/. And right away declared that the negotiations in Beijing would be put off.
But then the Washington "translators from the North Korean" changed their minds and came to the conclusion that the report dealt with something different: "We have successfully completed the final preparations for processing nuclear fuel." And that was something else. Then, to confuse matters more, it emerged that it was not in Washington, but in Pyongyang that the initial text of the Foreign Ministry statement was changed, without comments renewed on its Internet web site.
This queer but typical story clearly suggests why negotiations should be conducted in a three-way format, that is, with Chinese diplomats present. The point is that the Korean crisis erupted last October following precisely such a "misunderstanding" between the North Korean and American officials.
Prior to October, let it be recalled, the Bush administration froze all contacts with Pyongyang for a year and a half, at the same time declaring it to be part of the world's "axis of evil." But in October, these contacts were unfrozen, as James Kelly, US Assistant Secretary of State, began his visit to Pyongyang. And then a scandal erupted. Following a strange two-week pause Washington said that the North Koreans had acknowledged to Kelly they had a nuclear weapons development programme in hand.
That was what set the ball rolling - the US in fact walked out of the 1994 agreement under which it was to deliver to North Korea fuel oil for power stations until the Americans build nuclear power plants there. North Korea in reply began to scare its neighbours by re-activating its research reactor and allegedly preparing for the manufacture of the atom bomb, moreover withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.
The gist of the matter was that the Koreans had made no admissions in October, it was Kelly's superiors who decided to put such an interpretation on the phrase quite North Korean in spirit that, faced by the American threats, the North Korean people had the right to have "not only nuclear, but even more terrible" weapons. What is characteristic of the North Koreans, the world did not learn of this "slip" until the beginning of January, when the crisis was on the rise. However, South Korean intelligence had repeatedly said by that time that according to its estimates Pyongyang had no atom bomb nor ever had it before. But now it may get one.
Now that all meetings between that same Kelly and his opposite number from North Korea, who still remains unnamed, will be attended by Chinese diplomats, there will be no "slip." And in general Washington and Pyongyang are feeling so ferocious towards each other that they would rather not contact without an intermediary between them, at least in the initial stages.
On balance, the format of future negotiations has for several months featured as nearly the main issue of the Korean crisis. Pyongyang was insisting on a direct discussion with the Americans, pressing them for a non-aggression pact in exchange for re-embracing the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and renouncing nuclear programmes. Washington was demanding multilateral negotiations attended by countries interested in Korean settlement - Japan, China, South Korea and Russia.
But then Pyongyang seemed to get softer and stated its readiness to negotiate in any format. But "any" format meant one agreed with China - following Beijing's strong pressure - a three-way format. The Americans gladly accepted, because such a format suits the US to a T, because the US is concerned over the need to cooperate with China, especially after the war in Iraq.
Continuing the "format saga" it is possible to recall that in the late 90s Moscow vigorously worked to remain in the process of Korean settlement. It all depended, by major reckoning, on the US, which - being a supplier of fuel for North Korea and the superintendent of the country's future nuclear power - could dictate whatever it wished to whoever it wanted.
But, impulsively opting out of the agreement following the "October incident", the US found itself without leverage in Korean settlement, and, besides confronted by Japan and South Korea, let alone China and Russia, all of them displeased with its behaviour. That is why American diplomacy went out of its way to secure a multilateral format, hoping again to gain the support of all allies and partners in future accords with North Korea.
According to high-ranking sources in Russian official structures, after October, Moscow supported North Korea /and Beijing, and Seoul and Tokyo/, in that the talking should be done directly by officials from North Korea and the US. The point is that Moscow did not want any separate accords without the US, although technically they are quite possible /it is enough to find a substitute for the US as a supplier of present and future energy for North Korea/. So far the need is to restore the broken thread of understanding between Washington and Pyongyang. The next stage of negotiations - if guarantees of all parties to settlement are required - will be joined by all the rest. What is more, that is inevitable.
Sources say there is no playing to have Russia removed from negotiations. But what Moscow needs is not just participation in negotiations, but settlement because in any case Russia wins from a peace agreement on Korea. The fact is that most of future projects of economic development for North Korea cannot do without Russian participation. But both for Russia and for all member-countries involved without exception it is important for North Korea to return to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and stop talking of nuclear programmes.
Of course, what is now beginning in Beijing is only a preliminary stage of negotiations. But it demonstrates at least two important points that concern not the Korean peninsula but a world order in general. First, it is noticeable that following the Iraqi war the "grouping of State Secretary Powell" has been more successful in the US. This grouping is pressing for negotiations around Korea. No serious attempts to play out in Asia the "Iraqi option" - especially after the disastrous "October episode" - are discernible. Here it is worthwhile to recall that the same pattern was followed in the development of the situation around Syria, with its problems and their solution handed over from the "grouping of Defence Secretary Rumsfeld" to Powell.
Secondly, it is clear why this is happening in the case with Asia. The point is that American allies and partners, since October and especially after Iraq, have not been inclined to give the US full freedom on the Korean issue. In particular, South Korea has said that it accepts North Korea's proposal to hold earlier postponed negotiations between ministers of the two countries on April 27-28 in Pyongyang. And Japan has said that perhaps it would start giving North Korea food and economic aid without full normalisation of political relations - if Pyongyang drops its nuclear programmes.
That is to say, the countries that have always been considered to be US key allies in Asia have already firmly decided that in any event they will pursue their own Korean policy - which we have been observing in practice all the months that the crisis developed.