Thursday, May 6, 2010

Playing in the Traffic

Diplomacy routinely seems like an exercise in saying nothing of substance in as roundabout a way as possible. Nowhere is this truer than in a U.S. State Department press briefing. Not because the U.S. is prone to an excess of diplomatic doublespeak, but because, for better or worse, the U.S. has interests in so many places and has to operate in concert with so many partners.

It is the very distance between the interests of the partner and the interests of the U.S. that leads to the greatest degree of question avoidance, it appears. This diplomatic dance would be funny, were it not for the fact that it has real life implications.

Look at yesterday’s departmental press briefing. Spokesman Philip Crowley was presented with two blunt questions about whether the U.S. is going to deal with the Cheonan tragedy and the return of North Korea to the Six-Party Talks separately, as two unconnected events which should not influence each other, or whether it plans to hinge the future of the Six-Party Talks on the results of the ongoing Cheonan investigation.

It is not that the U.S. and South Korea are on different paths with regards to timing; indeed, it seems clear from this that the U.S. would want to wait for the Cheonan investigation results before saying anything on the Six-Party Talks even if Kim Jong Il were to trumpet North Korea’s return to the Talks from the top of the Juche Tower.

The real difference, however, is this;

QUESTION: Follow-up. You said on this podium yesterday you hope that North Korea will come back to the Six-Party Talks. It means if Kim Jong Il in Beijing right now makes the decision and says they will come back to the Six-Party Talks, you take part in Six-Party Talks?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, there are a couple of ifs there. Let’s see, but, I mean, we are, there are things that North Korea has to do if this process is going to move forward. And its behavior, living up to its obligations, meeting its commitments that it’s made over a number of years; those are things that North Korea has to do. And let’s see what they’re prepared to do.

Note that he didn't mention the Cheonan investigation, he only mentioned extant obligations, meaning already signed denuclearization agreements. Yes the U.S. will wait for the results of the Cheonan investigation, but it doesn't seem that the results will actually matter. The reason, of course, is that the U.S. has greater interest in denuclearization than it does in the Cheonan disaster, while South Korea cares more about the probable deaths of 46 of its conscripts at the hands of North Korea than it does, in the short term at least, about the (still largely hypothetical) risk of nuclear Armageddon on the Korean peninsula.

Neither party is wrong in this, and neither party is right. It's national interest at work. What is true, though, is that North Korea has been playing in the gaps between the policies of each interested party to the inter-Korean dispute for more years than many people can remember, and it only benefits one: North Korea.

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