DIFFICULT TALK: North Korean chief negotiator Kim Gye Gwan (center) leaves after talks with the United States in Geneva on October 25 (XINHUA)
Currently, North Korea faces two domestic challenges—power transition and economic development. External tensions are obviously not conducive to solving these domestic problems.
China and Russia have adopted a policy of promoting talks to help ease tensions on the peninsula. During his visit to North Korea and South Korea on October 23-27, Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang called for efforts to resume talks and advance the goal of Korean Peninsula denuclearization.
However, the United States and South Korea have always harbored suspicions over the real purpose of North Korea's pledge to return to the six-party talks. Many believe North Korea doesn't really want to abandon its nuclear program, and its real purpose is to gain time to improve its domestic situation.
This opinion was given more solid ground by NATO's recent military actions. Shortly after NATO began bombing Libya on March 19, the North Korean Foreign Ministry accused NATO of trampling the Libyan people's dignity and right to exist. It condemned NATO's actions as a "hideous crime against humanity," and emphasized it was North Korea's self-defense capacity that helped maintain peace on the Korean Peninsula and avoid war.
On May 10, when NATO launched precision air strikes against Tripoli, its missiles caused damage to the North Korean Embassy 500 meters away from the target. Many believed NATO's military operations in Libya strengthened the North Korean belief in the necessity of developing nuclear weapons.
Against this backdrop, the United States needs to make more efforts to convince North Korea that it won't launch military strikes against North Korea in the future. But Panetta reiterated on October 28 if the United States finds evidence of North Korea using nuclear weapons, missiles, bio-chemical weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, it will make full use of military force including a nuclear umbrella, conventional weapons and missile defense capabilities to provide extended deterrent for South Korea. This statement sounds just like a pre-emptive policy.
The confusing interactions between North Korea and the United States have made it difficult for them to find a new point to restart their relations.
A task more difficult than finding a restarting point for North Korea and the United States is to overcome strategic barriers because the two countries' strategic goals run counter to each other.
North Korea needs guarantees from the United States, including the U.S. recognition of its political system, a promise not to invade North Korea, the signing of a U.S.-North Korean peace agreement, and the establishment of normal diplomatic relations.
However, even if the United States is willing to make these promises, will North Korea believe it? U.S. behavior in the international community in recent years—from supporting "color revolutions" in Eastern Europe in the early 2000s and protests that overthrew governments in several countries in the Middle East this year to helping topple Muammar Gaddafi's regime in Libya with air strikes—shows the United States doesn't have much tolerance for so-called "authoritarian regimes." Considering this, North Korea is not sure under what circumstances it can truly fulfill its denuclearization promise.
Many people hope that North Korea can adopt a reform and opening-up policy like China. But China and North Korea have strong differences in terms of cultural traditions and international environment. North Korea faces a difficult choice whether it should gain security guarantees by carrying out social transition or starting to pursue social transition after it obtains security guarantees.
Currently, the U.S. strategy in the Asia-Pacific region focuses on maintaining its control over the region. The key of this strategy is to strengthen military alliances to ensure the U.S. control over regional security.
As far as the Korean Peninsula is concerned, the United States aims to strengthen its alliance with South Korea, help promote South Korea's military deterrent capacity, and develop a military cooperation mechanism between the United States, South Korea and Japan.
Under this strategy, it seems the United States does not need to negotiate with North Korea, because if North Korea dares to challenge it, it will be able to thoroughly solve the problem with force.
The United States holds talks with North Korea partly because it wants to stop North Korea from continuing to develop nuclear weapons and partly because it seeks to get the upper hand diplomatically.
A key point in judging the U.S. intentions in the future lies in its attitude toward building a comprehensive peace mechanism on the Korean Peninsula.
The author is an associate research fellow with the China Institute of International Studies