China, North Korea and the push for a diplomatic solution

ATAMI, Japan — While South Korea’s old soldiers burned the North Korean flag, their government and its allies adopted a more considered position in response to the bombardment of Yeonpyeong island.

Emotions were running high today among the 100 or so Marine Corps veterans meeting in Seoul, hours after the funerals of two comrades killed in last week’s attack. There were calls for unity and revenge, and a ritual burning of a portrait of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, and his youngest son and presumed heir, Kim Jong Un.

The prospects of a more serious conflict may have receded, but the display of force continues: As diplomatic efforts took shape across the region, the United States said its joint naval exercises with South Korea — involving 11 ships and 7,300 personnel — would continue, despite accusations from China that they were adding to regional tensions.

The message from Washington was clear: "It demonstrates our strong alliance with South Korea, our ability to defend South Korea," U.S. Army Col. Patrick Stackpole, chief of staff for U.S. forces in Japan, told reporters in Tokyo. "We will continue to conduct those type of exercises to basically show that we are a strong ally with South Korea.”

Yet one week on from the Yeonpyeong attack, regional allies have found the breathing space to formulate a unified diplomatic response.

Reports in Tokyo today said Japanese and South Korean foreign ministers would fly to Washington within days for talks with the U.S. secretary of state, Hillary Clinton.

"This is an initiative taken by Secretary of State Clinton," Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, Yoshito Sengoku, told reporters. “The Japanese government will take part in it proactively and hopes that the meeting will deepen the cooperation among Japan, South Korea and the United States in more specific and practical ways.”

North Korea and its frustrated benefactor, China, are hastily arranging similar meetings among top officials in Beijing and North Korea.

The Chinese state councilor, Dai Bingguo, who advises the Beijing leadership on foreign policy, will visit North Korea as early as Wednesday, according to Japan’s Kyodo news agency.

The secretary of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party, Choe Thae-bok, meanwhile, left for China in a move that offered faint hope that the North may be prepared to soften its demands — direct negotioations with the United States, an end to international sanctions and a no first strike guarantee from Washington — to strengthen the prospects of a multilateral breakthrough.

The push for a diplomatic solution was already threatening to unravel, however, after the United States, Japan and South Korea rejected Chinese calls for an emergency meeting of the six parties involved in talks on the North’s nuclear program.

"Under the circumstances it is imperative and important to bring the issue back to the track of dialogue and consultation as soon as possible," Hong Lei, a foreign ministry spokesman, told reporters in Beijing. "We believe parties concerned will take our proposal seriously and react positively."

But Robert Gibbs, a White House spokesman, said any talks would amount to little more than a gimmick given the North’s recent provocations. "The United States and a host of others, I don't think, are not interested in stabilizing the region through a series of PR activities,” he said.

That sentiment was echoed by Japan’s foreign minister, Seiji Maehara, who said multiparty negotiations — involving the two Koreas, China, Japan, the United States and Russia — would be “impossible” until Pyongyang honored its previous commitment to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.

In Pyongyang, the state media pounced on the joint naval drills in the Yellow Sea as evidence that the United States and South Korea were bent on provoking conflict.

"We have full deterrence to destroy our enemies at once," said the Rodong Sinmun, the newspaper of the ruling Workers' Party, warning that this week’s military exercises risked ''driving the situation to an uncontrollable catastrophe'' in an attempt to ''impose a nuclear war disaster'' on the Korean peninsula.

The North’s attack on Yeonpyeong continued to stir anger in South Korea.

The president, Lee Myung Bak, described the barrage as an “inhumane crime,” but the rest of his nationally televised address on Monday had the feel of a mea culpa delivered by a humbled leader at a time of national crisis.

“As the president, I stand here with a deep feeling of responsibility for being unable to protect the lives and property of the people,” Lee said ''I am truly sorry, and express a feeling of regret for the loss of innocent people and destruction of property." And his vow to make North Korea “pay an appropriate price” applied only to future provocations.

Its rhetoric aside, Noth Korea today attempted to bolster its negotiating position by giving details of its “peaceful” uranium-enrichment program at its main nuclear complex in Yongbyon, revealed earlier this month to a visiting U.S. scientist.

“Currently construction of a light-water reactor is in progress actively and a modern uranium enrichment plant equipped with several thousands of centrifuges, to secure the supply of fuels, is operating," the Rodong Sinmun said in an article carried by the state news agency KNCA. "Nuclear energy development projects will become more active for peaceful purpose in the future."

Gauging Pyongyang’s intentions is fraught with uncertainty so soon after it took the gamble of attacking civilians for the first time since the 1950-53 Korean War.

But some analysts believe recent provocations are a sign that Kim Jong Il is ready to talk. “If you look at the recent history of North Korean diplomacy, it is one of negotiating from a position of strength,” said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University in Tokyo.

“And from the North Korean perspective, the uranium-enrichment disclosures and the attack on Yeonpyeong show it is in a position of strength. The message is that they are interested in talking.”

We now know, courtesy of WikiLeaks, that some Chinese officials have become frustrated with North Korea’s behavior, even going as far as to accept the idea of a united Korea governed from Seoul, provided U.S. forces do not cross the current demilitarized zone. In one dispatch, a Chinese official likened its troublesome ally to a “spoiled child.”

With negotiations in the offing — and the only realistic alternative a further display of belligerence by Pyongyang — the coming days should tell us if Washington is willing to ditch its disciplinarian instincts and join Beijing in playing the role of indulgent parent.

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