11 , 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 31 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK
Is there substance behind North Korea's new, improved style?
edition's table of contents | Asiaweek.com
Why American troops may eventually have to leave Asia
For the past week, North Korea has been in the unlikely position of being
a star. At the Group of Eight industrial nations summit in Okinawa, Russian
President Vladimir Putin brought to the table Kim Jong Il's supposed offer
to curb Pyongyang's missile development in exchange for help on space
exploration. Muted applause, maximum publicity. At the ASEAN Regional
Forum (ARF) on security in Bangkok, the North's first appearance elicited
audible sighs of relief and largely unrestrained chumminess. After all,
the seven-year-old ARF has spent the past six years fretting impotently
about Pyongyang's perceived military ability to destabilize the region.
Nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, the missiles to deliver those payloads
all have been discussed earnestly. Now here was Foreign Minister
Paek Nam Sun, slightly unnerved by the attention, but at least present
to enter the debate. Except that there wasn't one.
Perhaps natural politeness was at play. One doesn't invite a long-shunned
guest to an established club and then grill him about his government's
supposed nasty designs on everyone else around the table. One introduces
him around, tries to build some trust and bonhomie, and hopes the newcomer
will feel like coming back and getting even chummier. "This is a big step
forward for security and diplomacy in the region," said host Thai Foreign
Minister Surin Pitsuwan. Certainly by joining the now 23-country forum,
North Korea is obliged to make public its key positions on defense, participate
in high-level exchange visits related to security and give prior notice
to other members of military drills. For Asia, that is an extraordinarily
From the North's point of view, much was achieved in Bangkok. On the sidelines,
its foreign minister had the first face-to-face meetings in years, if
not decades, with counterparts from South Korea, Japan and the U.S. Canada
agreed to join Australia, the Philippines, Italy and Kuwait in normalizing
relations. From the ARF standpoint, just getting all the protagonists
in Northeast Asia together for the first time was a triumph. No one seemed
really surprised that Paek could shed no further light on Kim's missile-program
offer to Putin. His job was to take soundings and report back. Only U.S.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, slightly testy in light of unresolved
West Asian peace talks back at Camp David, cut to the chase. She failed
to glean more details about the offer, she said, although she was "somewhat
more hopeful than before" about the prospects for long-term stability.
Of course, the U.S. has already been down a similar track. In 1994 it
led a consortium that agreed to donate fuel oil and to build reactors
to generate electricity. In return, the North agreed to freeze all nuclear
activity. Many observers doubt that North Korea was even close to nuclear
capability, just as many believe its missile program is primitive. No
matter, when the nuclear deal began to stutter, Pyongyang speared a test
missile over Japan and everyone rushed back to the negotiating table.
It is difficult not to view the latest offer in much the same light.
Perhaps all the fuss over Pyongyang's diplomatic push is largely because
little else happened at ARF. Lots of talk but no real action. The need
for substance will also be the key test of Pyongyang's apparent bid for
harmony with the neighbors.
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November 30, 2000