America's North Korean policy has been in hibernation
The return of the United States to the recently reopened six-party talks to denuclearize North Korea by diplomatic means adds a new, Rip...
Special to The Times
The return of the United States to the recently reopened six-party talks to denuclearize North Korea by diplomatic means adds a new, Rip Van Winkle dimension to American policy toward Northeast Asia.
Like Rip, who fell into a multiyear sleep after drinking an intoxicant provided by apparently well-meaning friends, the United States, after a party featuring the neo-conservative war on terror strategic brew, similarly displayed a protracted sleep-like insensibility toward the realities of Korea/Northeast Asia.
In Washington Irving's classic folktale, Rip eventually succeeds in adjusting to a world transformed while he slept, but it is far too early to make a similar judgment about the United States. The current revival is simply the first step in re-establishing a leadership role for the United States in the region at the dawn of the Asian century.
Before suggesting ways that Washington may successfully proceed, it is first necessary to diagnose the contents of the keg that induced our nap and to sketch the current realities of the Korea-centered world that the talks will address.
Foggy Bottom's big sleep began in earnest three-and-a-half years ago when President Bush shaped our policy toward North Korea under the strategic assumptions of the war on terror. At that time, North Korea, together with Iraq and Iran, was designated as part of the "axis of evil," making it a rogue state and prime target of the Bush doctrine.
Although the United States then invaded Iraq to eliminate the perceived threat from its weapons of mass destruction, we failed to respond with action while Pyongyang developed (in their words) "an arsenal of nuclear weapons," resigned from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, expelled the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors and continued to build two nuclear reactors.
To understand why the United States behaved in this stumbling, reactive manner, like someone walking in his sleep, it is first necessary to clarify the strategic assumptions of the war on terror and their efficacy — in this case, lack of efficacy — to the Korean situation.
After a glass from the neo-conservative keg, the world is seen in black and white, continuously beset by uncertainty and violence that may involve weapons of mass destruction, creating a situation that is best dealt with by force, unilaterally.
Applied to a nuclear rogue state like North Korea, the Bush doctrine seeks instant regime change by three means: capitulation (Libya); military force (Iraq); or severe political/economic sanctions. Diplomacy is marginalized because there can be neither engagement nor negotiation with the enemy.
Bringing to bear these operating principles on North Korea has proved to be utterly ineffective.
The capitulation option underlies American policy of "complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement" (CVID) of North Korea's nuclear weapons program. Our partners in the talks (South Korea, China, Japan, and Russia) all agree CVID should be the goal of the six-party talks, but the United States (and occasionally Japan) sees this as a precondition for negotiation. To expect Pyongyang to give up its essential bargaining chip before bargaining has assured stalemate in the talks.
The military option is out for three reasons:
• North Korean deployment of conventional arms would assure the deaths of hundreds of thousands of South Koreans and several thousand Americans, should hostilities break out;
• Uncertainty about location of the nuclear weapons materials makes a surgical air strike problematic; and
• Even if we "win" militarily, the occupation costs (e.g., Iraq) and the diplomatic costs (Seoul is totally opposed) would be prohibitive.
Finally, when earlier this spring Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice suggested recourse to sharply increased sanctions, China and South Korea, the two main suppliers of support (food and fuel, for example) to Pyongyang quickly and publicly rejected the proposal.
Consequently, during America's Rip Van Winkle snooze, our approach to North Korea was not so much a policy, but an attitude — an attitude that found expression in a diplomatic style best called "sandbox trash talk."
After public pleas to improve our manners from all our partners in the talks (save Japan), Bush began to refer to Kim Jong Il as "Mister" (rather than "pygmy" or "tyrant") and this apparently was a factor in reopening the talks. Changes in both the style and substance of United States policy seem to indicate that an awakening has taken place at Foggy Bottom, home of the State Department.
The realities of Northeast Asia confronting a roused America are as fully transformed as those that confronted Rip Van Winkle after his much-longer sleep.
Strategically, the unprecedented novelty of a rogue nuclear state in the region has made even more evident the need to revise fundamentally the existing bilateral alliances between the United States and Korea and the United States and Japan. A new strategic arrangement is in order.
Economically, China has not only replaced the United States as the leading trading partner of both Japan and South Korea, but has taken the lead in fostering economic regionalism centered on Beijing.
Diplomatically, our reactive mismanagement of North Korea has produced a "coalition of the partially willing" in the six-party talks. China and South Korea, in particular, seem as concerned about the political/economic collapse of North Korea as about the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Adjustment to these new realities of Northeast Asia will require the United States to go beyond the issue of proliferation. Accordingly, Washington should view the six-party talks not simply as an effort to rein in Pyongyang, but as a venue to shape the political economy of a region that will soon be at the center of world affairs.
The challenge for the United States vastly exceeds the adjustments Rip successfully made, because we have an obligation not just to adjust, but to lead and shape the realities of the Northeast Asian world to fit into the increasingly interdependent, but still not convergent, world in which we live.
Rice has said that the United States would go to the talks in Beijing to listen to the proposals of Pyongyang. That is not enough. This is the time for the United States to lead, and leadership involves a coherent, constructive and realistic strategy that avoids a demand for instant regime change.
The most direct path to a non-nuclear Korean peninsula is a comprehensive political/economic/security package crafted by Washington and implemented through the bold and effective multilateral leadership that once was the hallmark of American diplomacy.
Although it is premature to conjecture about the details or timing of a possible agreement, there are three essentials that will shape its ultimate form.
The dismantling of Pyongyang's nuclear-weapons program with effective safeguards must simultaneously involve American security assurances and a substantial multilateral aid package. Obviously, the gradual incorporation of North Korea into the fastest-growing region of the world will revolutionize its political economy.
Second, not only do our partners in the six-party talks have their own agendas regarding North Korea (e.g., South Korea's passionate pursuit of reunification, and China's fears of nuclear proliferation and a huge influx of refugees if Pyong-yang collapses) but, as seen in the "coalition of the partially willing," have both the capacity and intent to pursue those agendas without the United States.
Finally, as offensive as the human-rights abuses of the world's last Stalinist state are, they cannot be effectively addressed in the current talks.
China and especially South Korea took the diplomatic initiatives that have led to the present talks, currently in recess, in Beijing. Now it is America's turn. Unlike the Middle East, where strategic priority is due to a failed civilization, Northeast Asia offers a model for success competing with American democratic capitalism.
Moreover, the region will rival and soon surpass the United States in aggregate economic power. This provides the context in which the North Korean problem, and its solution, should be placed. Assuming there is no neo-conservative "hangover," it can be resolved by American diplomacy.Donald C. Hellmann is director of the Institute for International Policy and a professor in the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. In partnership with the Unification Forum of Seoul National University, he organized in June the first international academic conference ever held in North Korea.
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.