August 19, 2003
Prospects for Peace
by Alan Bock
six-way multilateral talks over the North Korean nuclear threat
and related issues – among North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan,
Russia and the United States – scheduled for August 25-27, seem
unlikely to yield notable breakthroughs. The best hope is probably
that they will set up a framework within which the main issue of
North Korean nukes and the underlying issue of what place or role
North Korea will assume in Asia and the world can be massaged and
talked to death without leading to direct conflict.
most important variable in the equation seems to be the position
and role of the United States. Will the U.S. see these talks as
a way to defuse the potential threat of a nuclear-armed North Korea,
even if the talks seem desultory and it's unlikely any of the parties
will be able to come away with a decision that allows them to thump
their chests and declare they have bested the evildoers on the other
side of the table? Or will U.S. diplomats see the talks as a way
to build a record that justifies more aggressive intervention, perhaps
including a military strike?
little question that certain factions within the U.S. government
seem to have little use for the idea of defusing the problem peacefully
and quietly. John Bolton, U.S. Undersecretary of State for arms
control, went virtually ballistic a couple of weeks ago with a spirited
denunciation of the North Korean regime that amounted to a personal
attack on North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il.
not that Kim Jong-Il is anything like an enlightened democrat or
an avatar of the benefits of limited government that respects personal
freedom. He is a brutal dictator who has made North Korea, according
to a number of people I talked to in South Korea who have spent
a fair amount of time there, something rather close to a "hellish
nightmare." But one wonders if Bolton's outburst was a pre-emptive
strike designed to make sure that the multilateral talks don't succeed
so the U.S. will have a pretext to force "regime change"
in North Korea, as it has done so successfully in Iraq.
how 'bout that peaceful aftermath?
SEEDS TO SOW?
are said to be the folks who are paid to go abroad and lie for their
countries. In any kind of diplomatic dealings there are almost inevitably
little hypocrisies that all involved have to observe lest the entire
charade fall apart.
you are entering negotiations with another country or power, you
may well believe or even know that their intentions are dishonorable,
that they're only delaying open hostilities until they feel strong
enough to succeed, and that the diplomat across the table would
as soon slit your throat as look at you. But you smile and pretend
to believe that his intentions are as honorable as he pretends yours
are. Undermining one's partner/adversary is generally done more
subtly than by hurling verbal thunderbolts (although they may have
their place at certain times), and the most effective treachery
is committed with a fixed smile and plausible deniability.
the United States really sees the multilateral talks as an important
concession by the North Koreans that could eventually lead to a
peaceful resolution of the nukes-in-the-North problem, it seems
unlikely that it would lead with a verbal broadside. There's a possibility
that Mr. Bolton's outburst was carefully calculated, to remind the
North that there are elements in the United States who are seeking
a pretext for war with North Korea, so it would behoove the North
to deal with the more sensible elements in the administration and
not be too outwardly nasty in the process.
so, I'll apologize and perhaps even congratulate Mr. Bolton on helping
to lay the groundwork for a peaceful resolution that still seems
to many the least likely outcome. But I suspect that he represents
a faction within the administration that might or might not include
President Bush (who has used unusually harsh language in reference
to North Korea), that still sees North Korea through Cold War eyes
– as an implacable enemy that understands only military power and
will behave aggressively unless reminded constantly that the United
States is a bigger, better-equipped and equally stubborn (and perhaps
irrational and unpredictable) 800-pound international gorilla.
however, if one is going into serious negotiations from which one
expects to get a give-and-take result with a few compromises, one
refrains from gratuitous insults of one's negotiating partners/adversaries
– however richly they might deserve it. The fact that John Bolton
felt obliged to insult the North Korean regime suggests that at
least he (one can't yet tell about other U.S. negotiators) doesn't
have an agreement in mind.
may hope there are cooler heads in the U.S. delegation. My take
on North Korea, based on talking to a number of U.S. authorities
and more recently some South Korean academics in South Korea, is
that North Korea is a basket case and knows it is – though for reasons
of face and history it is unlikely to admit it openly. Its nuclear
saber-rattling can be viewed as an effort to push its way into the
global marketplace and have some chance to gain a modicum of respect
and/or prosperity to go along with its military machine.
Clinton administration and most Republicans believed – or acted
as if they believed – that the Pyongyang regime was on the verge
of collapse and the best thing to do was to wait it out. In the
heady days following the destruction of the Berlin Wall and the
collapse of the Soviet Union this seemed virtually inevitable. That's
in part why the U.S. reneged on its side of the 1994 agreement (before
it knew for sure the North had reneged on the nuclear aspect) by
dragging its feet on fuel oil and a light-water reactor. We don't
speak much of the U.S. reneging, just about North Korean perfidy,
which truth to tell is real enough.
U.S. analysts still don't seem to have figured out is that not only
is the Pyongyang regime fanatically and studiously focused on regime
survival as its main goal in life, North Korea's neighbors, for
various reasons, don't have much interest in the regime collapsing
already has a Korean refugee problem. South Korean academics and
government people have studied the German reunification process
and determined that it cost West Germany an exorbitant amount. For
the time being – they no doubt see eventual reunification as likely,
but in a matter of decades not months – they see it as in their
interest to prop up the current regime. If the regime collapsed,
they fear a massive influx of hungry refugees with virtually no
marketable skills in South Korea's commercially burgeoning economy.
is a likely explanation for the fact that, even though a South Korean
navy ship fired warning shots at a North Korean fishing vessel yesterday,
South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun a few days before offered economic
aid to North Korea if it would give up its nukes.
the United States – I wouldn't give up completely on the possibility
that some State Department people see things this way – seems to
be the only country that wants to go out of its way to pick a fight
with North Korea. Japan, China and South Korea are plenty wary about
North Korea. But they think they understand it at least a little
(some South Korean universities actually have departments of North
Korean studies) and can figure out a way to work out a modus
vivendi, at least for the near or medium term.
all this, it seems reasonable to me to suggest that the United States
would do well to let North Korea's neighbors handle the tyranny
and pull out of the Asian briar patch. It doesn't seem to me unreasonable
to sign a non-aggression pact or to promise not to commit aggression
against North Korea. Until recently the United States liked to claim
that it didn't engage in wars of aggression anyway, and it at least
took steps to make conflicts appear to be defensive in character.
it's important to save face, the U.S. could hold out for language
that gave it the right to respond in the event of a credible nuclear
threat or perhaps even certain kinds of nuclear tests. But telling
a basket-case of a nation whose only hope to be saved these days
is to participate in the world market (thus effectively giving up
the reality if not the rhetoric of communism) that you won't launch
a war of aggression against it doesn't strike me as a huge concession.
Indeed, with a different attitude, it could be spun as part of a
gracious way of accepting, even celebrating the effective failure
of communism in yet another country. A wise United States might
even quietly crow about it as it paved the way for North Korea to
come into the capitalist embrace.
the United States seems determined to be the stumbling-block in
the way of North Korea fairly quietly and gradually moving away
from its threatening ways. By its actions – the invasion of Iraq,
the "axis of evil" rhetoric, the gratuitous slams – it
encourages the North in its rather paranoid belief that the only
way to get the United States to stop "persecuting" you
and to deal with you as a normal country is to have a nuclear weapon,
or at least the potential to have one.
the suggestion I have been making for months – that the United States
announce it is pulling its troops out of South Korea and leaving
the problem of the North to its neighbors – is unlikely to be heeded,
although acquaintances in Washington claim some people with establishment
connections acknowledge it should at least be an alternative. When
I made the suggestion at a seminar in South Korea, Dr. Yong Soon
Yim of Sungkyunkwan University, whose function was presenting (in
part explaining and in part critiquing) the North Korean point of
view, said he thought the North would consider such a move destabilizing.
However the North Koreans might bluster and demand, he said, deep
down they're glad the American troops are there – not just as a
tripwire and potential target, but as a restraint on a South Korean
regime that might at some point be more confrontational then the
for that very reason, the possibility might well make a good negotiating
ploy. If the North Koreans really fear the potentially destabilizing
potential of a U.S. withdrawal from North Korea, perhaps it could
be floated as a possibility. If the North is recalcitrant on trivia
or postures too much, the U.S. could simply say it was getting tired
of the whole mess and ready to leave the North to the tender mercies
of its neighbors and just pull out of the region – giving the North
a now-meaningless non-aggression treaty on its way out.
I believe it would be good for the United States to pull out of
South Korea, not least because that could be a prelude to pulling
out of Okinawa (whose troops are mainly in support of the Korean
commitment, not because there's any relationship at all to the defense
of Japan. But the United States for which this would be a good move
would be a non-imperial United States that had decided it was not
all that essential to preserving a wispy balance of power in Asia
(whatever that means this year, or in an Internetted world) or that
the cost of being the biggest dog in Asia was too high for taxpayers.
Unfortunately, that doesn't describe the current gang in Washington.
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