Perhaps the best that can be hoped for from a set of meetings between North Korea and the five other countries with the most direct interest in it — China, South Korea, Japan, the United States and Russia — is a prolonged period of negotiation in which all sides pretend to believe elaborate lies, bluster a bit and nobody attacks anybody else militarily. And perhaps that will be good enough.
Consider the lies various sides will cling to.
North Korea is a tragically failed state that, like most countries that tried to implement dogmatic communism, has a large military but can’t produce enough food to prevent rampant malnutrition. Its leaders know full well — especially since they have had more contact with the prosperous South Koreans over the last decade — that their system is a failure, but they will never admit it. They want help from other countries and eventually admission into the global economy.
For various reasons — including the fact that although the Korean War ended 50 years ago, there was no peace treaty and the United States and North Korea are technically still at war — the North Koreans think the United States is the key to getting what they want. They also seem to think the only way to get full attention from the United States without getting invaded is to have a nuclear weapon or the credible possibility thereof.
North Korea’s neighbors, for numerous reasons including the threat of refugees, would rather not see the system collapse, which might happen even if the North were to admit its adventure in socialism has failed. They want to prop up the wretched government for now, but of course they can’t come right out and say that. Instead they say they want to contain the threat it potentially poses.
The United States, for historical reasons and because of recent statements (“axis of evil,” for instance) wants to look tough and uncompromising in its dealings with North Korea. So it says economic aid is out of the question until the North admits it has nukes and dismantles its nuclear weapons program completely. But aside from a few hawks, the United States understands that invading North Korea or increasing pressure too much is out of the question. The heavily populated South Korean capital of Seoul is 30 miles from the heavy militarized “demilitarized zone,” and even a devastating first strike — much more than the Iraqi “shock and awe” campaign — would leave enough North Korean weapons in place to kill hundreds of thousands of South Koreans.
So nobody wants a confrontation, but nobody wants to appear to be backing down or compromising. “Saving face” is not only an Asian concept.
So ambassadors from the six countries will talk desultorily in Beijing. Maybe they’ll move toward a resolution and maybe they won’t. But at least, as Winston Churchill once put it in a different context, jaw-jaw is better than war-war.