What's to Be Done with North Korea?

News Abroad

Mr. Hixson is a professor of history at the University of Akron and is currently teaching at the China Foreign Affairs Institute in Beijing.

Despite inept diplomacy by virtually all concerned, it appears the world may survive the latest fiasco emanating from the Korean peninsula, at least for now. At some point, however, unless determined diplomacy replaces militarism and posturing, the result could be horribly different.

While the immediate focus shifts to the UN Security Council, the longer-term issue is whether the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) will choose diplomacy over militarism. Kim Jong-Il and North Korea are not solely responsible for this crisis; the Bush administration butchered Korean diplomacy for eight years. Moreover, the militarized U.S. foreign policy remains an impediment to a general settlement on the Korean Peninsula.

The essential problem in the West is the inability to look beyond the irrationality and ineptitude of Kim’s regime. The demonization of Kim and the DPRK fuel a discourse that absolves all others of any responsibility for the perpetual Korean crisis. But there is plenty of blame to go around.

The point is that North Korea exists, it receives diplomatic backing from China, and “regime change” does not appear to be on the horizon. Moreover, the DPRK, quite understandably, feels itself to be surrounded by hostile forces led by the dominant military power in the world, the United States and joined by longtime enemies South Korea and Japan.

While condemning Pyongyang for the “provocative act” of the satellite launch, the United States ignores its own provocations, notably the recent massive 20-day “war game” exercises with South Korea. The Pentagon dispatched an aircraft carrier to the region (appropriately named the USS John Stennis) as well as destroyers.

Within the frames of U.S. militarist discourse, these acts are not provocations but rather prudent exercises in pursuit of the national interest. But if history shows us anything about Kim and his regime, it is that it tilts toward extremism in response to provocations but at the same time is capable of responding positively to diplomacy. For example, Bush undermined the groundwork for a settlement by including North Korea in the “axis of evil,” but near the end of his presidency when he took Kim’s regime off the list of terrorist states Kim responded by destroying the cooling tower at the Yongbyon nuclear facility.

Fortunately the Obama administration favors diplomacy and engagement over bellicose rhetoric and confrontation. The administration is committed to denuclearization of the Korean peninsula as well as a general settlement of the political dispute dating back to World War II and the Korean War.

Obama and his special envoy Stephen Bosworth will have to work hard to get the Six Party talks back on track because now not only North Korea but also South Korea and Japan are in a perfervid state. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak joined Bush in adopting a confrontational approach while Japanese Prime Minister Aso has tried to resurrect his record-low political standing with a get-tough approach to the crisis.

Russia is the least important player in the Six Party talks, though it could exercise a useful role, but it is China that may hold the key to resolving the crisis. The PRC conducts normal diplomacy with Pyongyang, not least because it has enough mouths to feed as things stand and does not want to see the regime collapse and release a flood of refugees across its border. In January 2009, shortly after Obama’s inauguration, Kim Jong-Il told his Chinese allies that he was committed to a nuclear free Korean Peninsula, thus underscoring that China remains positioned to get meaningful results from Pyongyang.

However, of late Beijing has been irritated by U.S. militarism in East Asia, not least Washington’s provocative decision to conduct surveillance within 75 miles of China’s naval base at Hainan Island. On the other hand China’s claim to virtually the entire South China Sea exacerbates tensions in the region.

The Six Party talks should get back on track at some point and they have a reasonable chance at success once tensions abate. If the Obama administration can rein in its own military, as well as its dependent allies in Seoul and Tokyo, and pursue the avowed aim of a world free of nuclear weapons, North Korea might play along.

“Pyongyang’s basic stance is that as long as Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul remain adversaries, it feels threatened and will acquire nuclear missiles to counter that threat,” writes Leon Sigal, an expert on the Korean crisis, in the January 2009 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. However, “if Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul move toward reconciliation it will get rid of these weapons. Whether North Korea means what it says isn’t certain, but the only way to test it is to try to build mutual trust over time by faithfully carrying out a series of reciprocal steps.”

Short of fuel and unable adequately to feed its own people, the DPRK badly needs international economic assistance. The United States and its allies should strive for an immediate quid pro quo involving massive but graduated assistance to the North in return for denuclearization. Such a result would not only pave the way for a settlement on the Korean Peninsula but could also enhance the U.S. goal of containing Korean nuclear technology from export to other states.

The North Korean launch represents a step back in the region, no question, but there is a way forward. The Clinton administration was on the verge of an agreement before leaving office and Obama can resurrect that diplomacy. He must do so because in the world of the twenty-first century choosing militarism over diplomacy invites disaster.