The problem is that either Korea could disrupt the tenuous peace on the peninsula. It's taboo to say so openly (especially if you're an American diplomat), but some say it nevertheless.
RIA Novosti political commentator Moscow, Russia (RIA Novosti) Dec 17, 2010 On Wednesday night, South Korea's Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs Wi Sung-lac departed from Moscow after talks at the Russian Foreign Ministry, two days after North Korean Foreign Minister Park Ui Chun had been there. These visits might look like the usual and often useless routine that always precedes the latest round of six-party talks on the North Korean nuclear program. But there are a few meaningful differences this time.
To begin with, it is unclear whether it will even be possible to gather together all six nations - China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea and the United States. Moreover, there are doubts about the values of the talks.
Some have proposed trying a new negotiating format. What is clear is that the Korean nuclear threat and related problems demand solutions, whether they are found in Beijing or elsewhere.
There have been muted signals that Moscow and Washington are coming to a silent understanding on the Korean problem, given recent developments in the region. This has the potential to realign forces in Northeast Asia.
Troublemakers The problem is that either Korea could disrupt the tenuous peace on the peninsula. It's taboo to say so openly (especially if you're an American diplomat), but some say it nevertheless. Here is how the People's Daily Online, China's flagship news organization, puts it:
"The successive U.S.-South Korean military exercises and the joint military exercises between the United States, South Korea and Japan made media in the United States and Japan note that the exercises are explicitly targeting North Korea."
"Despite Pyongyang's warnings, the Republic of Korea (ROK) launched a live-fire naval exercise on Monday, including locations in disputed waters off the west coast of the divided peninsula. This has further intensified the hostility between the ROK and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK)."
It is noteworthy that these articles came out after November 23, when North Korea shot up the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong in response to similar maneuvers in contested waters.
On the surface, the reactions to these events have been typical of the negotiating parties. The foreign ministers of only three countries involved in the six-party talks - the United States, Japan and South Korea - met in Washington, followed shortly by a series of joint military exercises.
Beijing and Moscow prefer to express their positions a different way. After the November 23 incident, China invited the head of the North Korean parliament for talks. As for Russia, you can look up the Russian Foreign Ministry's press releases regarding its talks with the North Korean official, where the Russian side expressed its concern about "the growing political and military tensions on the peninsula, which is fueled, in particular, by a series of large-scale military exercises."
To understand where Russia stands in this situation, just compare the length of the press releases put out by the Foreign Ministry regarding its meetings with the North Korean and South Korean diplomats.
A problematic ally As for Washington, its stance must be discerned from statements by several anonymous sources, since Washington hasn't yet stated its official position.
These sources state the obvious: The inability to make progress in two almost identical situations - the nuclear threats posed by Iran and North Korea - is seen as a failing of the Obama administration. But if Washington can reach an understanding on Iran with Moscow, why not try the same approach for the Korean dilemma?
In its unreasonable obstinacy, the current South Korean government reminds American diplomats of Israel. Although Israel is traditionally referred to as an ally in the U.S., everybody understands that Israel is Washington's liability, not asset. The Obama administration does not need another liability in South Korea.
Beijing is running out of miracles Six-party talks have traditionally been held in Beijing. China has always been considered the main guarantor of the fragile peace on the Korean Peninsula. But the Chinese political establishment seems to believe that the Obama administration is re-engaging Asia in order to constrain a rising China. The joint maneuvers with South Korea and Japan are meant to signal the U.S. return to Asia. Meanwhile, Beijing's actions - or rather inaction - make it clear that China is wary of any changes in the situation around the Korean Peninsula.
The biggest unknown is exactly what Moscow and Washington can achieve together. Russia certainly won't try to push China aside in the Korean talks or undermine its influence. However, Moscow is also eager to strengthen cooperation with the U.S. on yet another issue.
The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.