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If handled with a rare mix of tact and humility, the nuclear crisis spurred by Pyongyang could redeem American diplomatic relations with Russia and China, foster improved regional security and fuel the starved North Korean economy.
After insisting on two-way talks with the United States, North Korea made a significant concession in their aggressive stance late last week when Korean diplomats announced a willingness to consider a more flexible approach to needed peace talks if the United States would also soften its hard-line stance.
The North Korean regime has come under international scrutiny since declaring last year that it was operating nuclear weapons programs in breach of multiple treaties it had signed. Most recently, Korea flaunted its defiance with a public announcement to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty signed by over 180 nations.
Multiple motivations underlie North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il’s nuclear ambitions—including, but not limited to, inflating his international status, intimidating the country’s northeast Asian neighbors and gaining leverage to blackmail the United States into giving financial rewards.
Amidst the widespread famine and stark poverty characteristic of a Communist state, Kim’s regime risks implosion if it fails to garner needed external aid. Since North Korea has received billions of dollars worth of food, oil and project aid in recent years as a reward for halting nuclear programs, its leaders believed that the international community would again appease its belligerent behavior. In the process, Kim counted on polishing his domestic demi-god-like persona and boosting his international clout by demanding one-on-one talks with the American leadership.
In a promising turn of events, Kim reappeared last week in public after two months of silence. America’s rapid toppling of the Iraqi regime may have given the Korean leadership a change of heart, and the policy turnaround—declaring openness to multilateral talks with concerned neighbors such as South Korea, Japan, Russia and China—may reflect a new pragmatism.
Although differences on Iraq policy strained American relations with Russia and China, a shared concern for defusing the North Korean situation could provide a platform for rebuilding and strengthening those ties. Both nations carry residues of envy toward American preeminence and wells of resentment toward American global micromanagement. If the U.S. recognizes its common interests with Russia and China, encouraging these nations to take the lead in this diplomatic debacle, they will appreciate the deference and respect and may be emboldened to take on greater responsibility to ensure peace and stability in their own neighborhood.
America should take this opportunity to combat its image of condescension and begin weaning Asia off excessive reliance on foreign security forces. By purposefully taking a backseat, America can allow and encourage relations between Asian powers to evolve from a delicate détente into a robust and sturdy peace.
Opening new talks also provides an avenue for improving regional security and reshaping the flawed 1994 Agreed Framework, which most commentators consider equivalent to international blackmail. South Korea and China are unlikely to discontinue aid provisions (official and unofficial) that prop up the faltering North Korean economy, since they both hope to avoid an influx of refugees from a collapsed neighboring regime. Because of this support, their influence on Kim is strong, but they will need to forcefully assert their opposition to his nuclear program and advocate its immediate and unequivocal dismantling with extensive verification by international inspectors.
Perhaps the biggest challenge in defusing this situation is that North Korea wants strong security guarantees (i.e., a non-aggression pact from the U.S.) preceding its disarmament, but the U.S. and other powers hope to see active disarmament before making any agreements. Hopefully multilateral talks will result in each of the powers signing a firm non-aggression treaty contingent upon North Korea immediately ending its arms programs under intensive inspection and supervision. The security guarantee must be made while also avoiding further risk of appeasing Korea’s defiance. If the nations involved can remain firm while allowing North Korea to save face, the result may be a far better agreement than the older ones invalidated and ignored by Kim. If Asian powers can build trust around a common goal of promoting regional peace and prosperity, they may begin to foster new cooperation wherein war is no longer considered an option.
With a nuclear threat avoided, North Korea’s neighbors will be able to freely encourage its economic growth in good conscience. Stringent economic sanctions have been externally applied to discourage and deter arms programs, but these would be obsolete if Kim abandoned these pursuits. Burgeoning prosperity in Japan and South Korea could enhance their neighbor’s weak economy, encouraging interdependence and creating greater incentives for regional peace. Moreover, the North’s promising recent market-based reforms would continue to pay off, potentially creating openness to further reforms that would combat the nation’s destitute poverty.
The American leadership has wisely avoided bilateral talks with North Korea, insisting that multilateral talks including its concerned neighbors will be more productive and less likely to result in blackmail. The next step to improving America’s Asian diplomacy is abdicating the throne of global micromanagement and encouraging other regional powers to take active and responsible roles in promoting peace.
Richard T. Halvorson ’03 is a philosophy and government concentrator in Pforzheimer House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.
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