The 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.
The 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?
There’s 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.
It’s 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.
And how ’bout that peaceful aftermath?
WHICH SEEDS TO SOW?
Diplomats 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.
When 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.
If 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.
If 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.
Generally, 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.
One 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.
The 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.
What 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 just now.
China 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.
That 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.
Thus 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.
Given 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.
If 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.
Instead, 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.
Thus 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 current one.
Yet 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.
Now, 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.