03 March 2005

Subtleties, Suggestions and Semantics

Talk isn’t cheap in nuclear negotiations. The exact phrasing can mean the difference between complete comprehension and complete confrontation. North Korea’s classic claim that, when initially faced with U.S. accusations of having a Uranium nuclear program, said Pyongyang has the “right” to have nuclear weapons, is just one of myriad examples of why subtle shifts and changes in phrasing can have significant impact on the negotiations.

But Pyongyang is certainly not alone in playing the semantics game, as seen from the recent comments from China and South Korea. South Korean and Chinese officials, meeting in Seoul, have come up with a new definition for the “demands” North Korea has made before Pyongyang will rejoin talks. Rather than being “pre-conditions,” something the United States has refused to accept, Seoul and Beijing are referring to these demands as simply being about a changed “atmosphere.”

It is a clever wordplay, but like North Korea’s earlier claim of the “right” to have nuclear weapons (as opposed to its most recent claim to actually having them), and even South Korea’s recent decision not to call North Korea the “Main Enemy” in the Defense White Paper (even if it remains the most immediate military concern), the semantics of the South Korean and Chinese word choice is only important in the context of the subtleties of diplomacy. In reality, Washington will call them whatever it wishes – or, more specifically, Washington will choose to deal with North Korea not on the twisting of wording, but on the strategic decision to engage, ignore or even invade the North.

Subtle diplomatic phrasings and semantical games are swell, but in the end, the decisions are based much less on how cleverly someone has manipulated the definitions, than on the cold, hard realities of security and interst – and if there isn’t much of a threat, the subtle semanticizers can play their games.

Maybe, then, talk IS cheap afterall…

No comments: