Timing is everything, in politics, war and peace. President Obama, and the world, were extremely lucky to have had Governor Bill Richardson in Pyongyang just when he was.
His visit coincided with what I consider to have been the most dangerous moment in relations between North and South Korea since 1994, the “sea of fire” crisis, which was ended only by an emergency visit to Pyongyang by former president Jimmy Carter. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, facing heavy domestic criticism for what had been perceived as an inadequate response to the 23 November shelling of Yeonpyong Island by North Korea, felt he had to prove his toughness, and his leadership, to his own people, his neighbors, and his major ally, the US This he proposed to do by holding a second live-fire exercise from Yeonpyong Island, the first of which had provoked the North Koreans to fire in response, causing the first two civilian casualties suffered by South Korea since 1953.
Governor Richardson, making his eighth trip to North Korea, at the invitation of Kim Gye Gwan, North Korea’s chief nuclear negotiator, arrived in Pyongyang in the midst of this developing crisis. South Korea’s live-fire exercise had been announced, and North Korea was outdoing itself in the retaliatory threats it was issuing, including nothing less than a reference to the possible use of nuclear weapons.
Governor Richardson said he “hoped to make a difference” in bringing a more stable situation into being, and settled down to substantive talks with men he knew well. A trickle of sensible-sounding suggestions soon surfaced; establishment of a three-way military commission involving the US and North and South Korea, to study crisis avoidance; setting up a “hot line” between the North and South; the return of recently discovered remains of American soldiers killed in the Korean war; possible resumption of visits by IAEA inspectors to Yongbyon, and sale of enriched nuclear fuel rods to foreign buyers, including South Korea.
In Seoul, the seriousness of the situation was demonstrated by an unusual event. On Saturday, December 18th, US Ambassador Kathleen Stephens, accompanied by Combined Forces Commander General Walter Sharp called upon President Lee at the Blue House. In what the Dong-a Ilbo called “an emergency visit” the ambassador and the general reportedly told the president to be prepared for a provocative military reaction from North Korea, if the live-fire exercise on Yeonpyong island were to be carried out. Following this meeting, the Blue House announced that the exercise would be held. Its timing and duration were announced. The strength of the US-Korean alliance had thus been demonstrated: Despite dire threats from the North, the exercise was definitely going to happen, and the world went to bed on the 19th wondering how North Korea would respond.
From my five trips to Pyongyang, I know most, if not all, of the men the governor met and talked with. They are extremely intelligent, tough negotiators, with a strong sense of what is possible and what is not. They clearly recognised that all of the positive ideas discussed with Governor Richardson would be obliterated by a hostile military response, executed on the day of his departure, and that his visit would be taken by Pyongyang’s myriad of critics as further proof of the uselessness of talking directly with North Korea. Their choice not to retaliate, despite the dire threats they had issued, is a wise decision that puts the ball in Washington’s court. I would hope that Governor Richardson would be invited to the White House and listened to carefully. His visit has brought strong evidence of the value of direct talks with North Korea, the key to long-term stability on the Korean peninsula. They clearly need to be continued.
Donald P Gregg was national security adviser to Vice President George H.W. Bush (1982-1988) and ambassador to South Korea (1989-93)
Khaleej Times – December 26, 2010