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Officials From U.S. And North Korea Hold Dialogue At UCSD


Were any breakthroughs made when U.S. and North Korean officials met with other diplomats from Northeast Asia at UC San Diego this week? We speak to the organizer of the Northeast Asia Cooperation Dialogue about the purpose of the meeting, and what came out of the international discussion.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. The Northeast Asia Cooperation Dialogue Forum this week on the campus of UC San Diego made international headlines. The news was not really about what happened there but who took part in the forum. North Korea's number two nuclear negotiator was here in San Diego, joined by officials from the U.S., South Korea, China, Russia and Japan. Those just happen to be the member nations of the 6-party nuclear negotiation talks that North Korea walked out of last spring. By all accounts no breakthroughs were made at the UCSD conference, but it is one in a series of signs that diplomatic efforts are being made to find a way to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table over the issue of nuclear weapons. Joining me to discuss the Northeast Asia Cooperation Dialogue Conference is my guest, the event’s founder, Susan Shirk, Director of the University of California’s Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, and professor of political science at UCSD. Professor Shirk, welcome.

SUSAN SHIRK (Founder, Northeast Asia Cooperation Dialogue Conference): Thank you very much. Nice to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Now you were quick to inform the media that there were no breakthroughs made at the UCSD Northeast Asia meeting but – and it was not a preparation for the resumption of official talks. That being the case, what was the importance of this meeting?

SHIRK: Well, this was the 20th time we’ve gathered this group together. We founded the Northeast Asia Cooperation Dialogue back in 1993 because at the end of the cold war Asia had very few of these opportunities for several countries to come together in contrast to Europe, say. So we created this experiment to see whether or not these candid, off the record discussions between officials and private experts in these six countries might help reduce the risk of conflict in that region because, remember, this is one area where there is a risk of war: China, Taiwan, Korean peninsula. But the discussions have never been focused entirely on North Korea. You know, there’s a lot of mistrust that still exists among the other countries as well.

CAVANAUGH: Now you describe the talks this time as frank but friendly. And that, as we know, is diplomatic speak. So what does it – What does that mean? Did you accomplish what you wanted to?

SHIRK: You know, we never expect any big breakthroughs. What we hope to do is to give officials especially, but remember military officers and defense officials come too, the opportunity to understand one another’s perspectives better, to explain the domestic political context in each country for their policies and, hopefully, that then over the long term translates into official agreements and a peaceful region. But we never expect them to walk out and say, okay, as my husband says, you know, was peace declared today? You know, we never expect that sort of thing to happen.

CAVANAUGH: That’s not really the point…

SHIRK: Right, exactly.

CAVANAUGH: …of the conference. A lot of the media reports I did read about it, though, really emphasized the point that you had the number two nuclear negotiator for North Korea attend this meeting. And did they over emphasize the importance of that?

SHIRK: Well, no, I think because the official six-party talks are now stalled and the North Koreans – let’s just review the history here. The six-party talks came up with an agreement back in 2005 in which everybody committed to the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. We committed to working toward normal relations with North Korea. All the countries agreed to provide some assistance of heavy fuel oil for their energy crisis, and they talked about replacing the armistice with a permanent peace agreement. But then we’re really puzzled as to why North Korea, at the start of this new administration, decided to launch a missile, which they called a satellite launch. We – U.N. responded with sanctions. Then they tested a nuclear weapon for the second time, so these were very provocative actions. And they walked away from the six-party talks, so right now it’s a very tense situation. It’s clear that they want to start talking again. Obviously, we want to start talking again. So the two sides are kind of inching their way back to resuming talks but there’s tremendous pessimism as to whether or not talks this time will be successful because this is a very hard problem to solve.

CAVANAUGH: As you’re outlining this problem, it occurs to me that members of the audience would – may want to get involved in our conversation so let me give the number out. It’s 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. I know the week before these – this heralded meeting happened this week at UCSD, there were some negotiations about—very crucial negotiations—about economic development in a paper that was released. I want to talk about that in a minute but I do want to follow up on some of the things that you just said about the hopes, the stalled negotiations and the hope to restart them. I know that that Kim Jong-il has come out just recently with home hopeful note that he might be interested in restarting talks and – and they were just coincidental to this group meeting at UCSD, is that right?

SHIRK: That’s right. We meet every year. And it just so happened – And we rotate where they’re held among the countries, so it just so happened that this year we were meeting in the U.S. and, of course, everyone loves to come to San Diego so the timing was completely coincidental. But then, clearly, every – all the six-party talk negotiators from all six countries decided to try to use the occasion of this meeting to see if they couldn’t work their way back to talks, and we did seat all six of them at meals together and they had lots of time for informal interactions.

CAVANAUGH: That’s very interesting to think about international politics taking place over the dinner table but you must see that all the time.

SHIRK: Well, I wouldn’t say I see it all the time.

CAVANAUGH: But every year.

SHIRK: I did serve in government…


SHIRK: …but this is very interesting for me because I’m the one person who gets to join them.

CAVANAUGH: Well, one final question about this. I know that one of the provisions, one of the conditions that North Korea has set is that first they talk exclusively with the United States and then they might start their six-party negotiation again about their nuclear weapons. Was there any idea that that is a good idea? Is that a good way to restart these six-party talks?

SHIRK: Well, I think the Obama administration is quite willing to have bilateral negotiations, or bilateral contacts, they like to say, with North Korea so long as all the other parties know what’s going on. It’s not like the Bush administration at the beginning, you know, refused to talk to North Korea because it’s such an evil regime, which I think most people are pretty down on the regime. Certainly, its domestic situation is pretty horrible. But – So they’re willing to talk but they don’t want to get sucked into an interminable bilateral negotiation that in which the North Koreans try to sell us the same deal again and get more rewards of various sort for it. So the tricky part is how do we maintain the six-party contacts but have intensive two-way discussions within that context.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Susan Shirk. She is a professor of political science at UCSD and the founder of the Northeast Asia Cooperation Dialogue. And earlier this week, representatives from North Korea, South Korea, China, Russia, Japan and the U.S. all sat down and talked about a variety of issues. I’d like to move on, if we can, to the economic development paper…

SHIRK: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: …that was released a week ago. Tell us a little bit about that.

SHIRK: Well, the Institute I direct, the Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, we partnered with the Asia Society in New York and wrote – did a task force with a whole bunch of Korea-hands on how to, over time, change North Korea’s conception of its own self-interest. One reason that this nuclear issue has been so difficult is because of the nature of North Korea’s domestic politics and domestic economy, which is this, you know, it’s kind of a museum of Stalinism. It’s a centrally planned economy that is really – is starving its people, there’s no other way to say it. Once the Soviet Union and China stopped propping it up, it had a terrible famine in the nineties. I’ve been to North Korea several times and you see teenagers look like children because of stunting. I mean, it’s tragic. You really understand why President Bush got so emotional about North Korea. It’s a human rights disaster. So if we were able, gradually, to encourage North Korea to undertake the kind of market reforms and opening that China has undertaken, then I think we can predict that their stance toward the world would start to moderate. They would no longer be as belligerent because they’d have to keep good relations with the countries with whom they trade and if they want to attract foreign investment. So as a student of China’s economic reforms from the early nineties, I have felt that that really could be the best long term solution for North Korea.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us a little bit more, Susan, about your travels in North Korea because it’s such a really deeply foreign land to so many people. It’s closed off from the rest of the world. We heard this summer about the two American journalists being held in North Korea simply for basically crossing the border and taking some pictures as far as I understand it. Tell us a little bit more about what you’ve seen in North Korea.

SHIRK: Well, when I – I first went to North Korea in 1992 and then I went again in 2002 and then I just went this February. And North Korea reminds me very much of the China I first saw in 1971. It – Punyun is the most developed part. I always try to get out of Punyun because…

CAVANAUGH: And that’s the capitol.

SHIRK: The capitol, right. But they have very few private cars – no private cars, very few cars. For a long time they even banned bicycles because they wanted to control people’s movement. They don’t have enough fuel for the buses. So you have these very broad avenues with hundreds of people walking long distances. It’s kind of spooky. The living standards, obviously, are quite low even though North Korea started off, say, after the Korean War, North Korea actually was a wealthier country than South Korea and it’s a more industrialized country then than South Korea. But living standards have declined drastically and it’s a very controlled society but so is the China I first saw in ’71. So I guess that’s why I’m not quite so much a pessimist as many other people because I’ve seen such dramatic changes in China driven by their own domestic economic changes, and that’s what gives me some hope the same thing could happen in North Korea, although it’s a different kind of Communism. It’s not the same.

CAVANAUGH: Why is it a different kind of Communism? Is it just because of the leaders? Why is that?

SHIRK: Well, it’s true that we have a dynasty here, the Kim dynasty. Kim Il-sung passed away and handed down power to Kim Jung-il but then Kim Jung-il, the current leader, doesn’t have the same dictatorial power that Kim Il-sung had. And the culture personality is as much about the late leader as the current one. But what he did in order to bolster his own authority is, he created – he built up the military as his power base, so one reason that North Korea’s so different is that the military is the strongest organized interest whereas in China it was the Communist party.


SHIRK: So now you can see how that fits in with the foreign policy because these folks, their power and privilege really depends on having a hostile international environment. I consider them spoilers, kind of like Hamas. You know, they want to wreck the six-party talks because then they get more of the resources, more of the power, more of the privilege. So that’s a very difficult challenge; how do you try to cut them in to a market reform and make them – give them a stake in changing the economic system? But it can be done, I’m convinced of that.

CAVANAUGH: And a lot of people criticize the way that China has changed, even though it is more a part of the world community now. The human rights situation inside China is remarkably bad from some people’s point of view, and do we have any indication that that would be any different in North Korea if, indeed, they came onboard economically in the world, more than they are right now.

SHIRK: I don’t want to oversell this.


SHIRK: I don’t anticipate North Korea’s going to democratize tomorrow or maybe even ever. But the China of today sure is a better place to live than the China of 35 years ago. And it’s true that there isn’t – organized groups don’t have the freedom to express themselves politically, there aren’t elections, etcetera, but on the other hand, you can choose your own job, you can travel outside the country, you – in the classroom people can pretty much say whatever they want. It’s a much freer society than it was in the seventies in the Mao era. So – And obviously living standards have improved dramatically. So, you know, the North Korean people, the planned food distribution that they get from the government, ever since the mid-nineties famine, has not been adequate for survival so – and that’s why people, in fact, are going to the market in North Korea. There is a lot of – or a certain amount of market activity in the northern part of the country due to the desperation of people to feed their families and the fact that China, Chinese businesses, are trading and investing. So I think there’s something to build on there because even though the government policy is to discourage markets, markets are developing.

CAVANAUGH: I know this is a hard question to answer but is it your perception that there’s enough will inside of North Korea to change things and perhaps go to a more market society to overcome the military influence?

SHIRK: Well, that, of course, is the $64,000 question. And I see reason to believe that perhaps Kim Jung-il himself gets that, that he sees that, just like Deng Xiaoping, he could introduce market reform and have it increase his political support in the country and popularity and that he could cut in the military in the same way Deng Xiaoping cut in the local officials and party officials. And why do I believe that? Because I’ve never met the man but in the late nineties and early two-thousands, he visited China three times and he selected the itinerary, to go and see all of China’s joint ventures, special economic zones, the stock market. He brought his generals. He lectured them about how a stock market works on the floor of the Shanghai Stock Exchange. I don’t see any reason for doing that unless you have some thought of doing something similar in your own country.

CAVANAUGH: I’m afraid that’s where we have to end it but I want to thank you so much, and congratulations on the conference.

SHIRK: Well, thank you very much.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Susan Shirk. She is the founder of the Northeast Asia Cooperation Dialogue as well as being Director of the University of California's Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation and professor of political science at UCSD. Now coming up: Beef. If it’s what’s for dinner at your house, stay tuned as the KPBS food series continues. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

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