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.

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Lorraine Paul - 4/11/2009

Mr Harper, I am neither mystified, puzzled or offended! Nor am I suprised that you do not agree with me.

Recently you had an election and it appears that the majority of your countrymen and women do agree with me.

Have I interpreted your initial remarks to mean that because I am not American that my opinions are of no importance? Or is it because I do not believe the 'official story'? Either way you have managed to neatly put me in a box, a tactic which is often used to discredit the others argument. Sometimes it might work, especially in the case of those who cling to their comfort zone.

As for the term 'liberal paranoia' this is the first time I have come across this phrase. It is not often that liberals are characterised by paranoia. After all it was conservative paranoia which led to the infamous second Red Scare and subsequent Cold War!

Well, Mr Harper, it is not my goal to change your political and social belief system, therefore I will return to my 'fever swamp' or even quagmire, <g> until once more I am called upon to venture forth to do battle with the forces of reaction!

'Oo! Roo!, mate!

Lorraine Paul - 4/11/2009

Good lord! When did this happen?

As I get older the world becomes more and more bizarre! On the other hand, if the plan of the North Korean elites is to embed spies, then we can hardly blame them for doing so when the west is/was practising the same during the Cold War or subsequently.

Everyone knows that embassies are a hot-bed of spying and leaking! "Leaking like a sieve", as Sir Humpy would say!

Looked at in another way, if Australia was characterised as part of an Axis of Evil and vilified at every opportunity, I would expect my government to do all in its power to protect the generic 'me'.

Sometimes we can be too quick to condemn in others what we see in ourselves. Was it not those early Christian settlers in the US who began the practice of scalping the native population? Then cried 'foul' when it was enthusiastically taken up by the 'scalpees'?

I am certain that there are many people on HNN who would agree that we do not need more 'Iraqs'.

Jonathan Dresner - 4/11/2009

You're wrong about the kidnapping issue (see above): moreover, North Korea has been less than forthcoming with a proper accounting of the lives and deaths of those they seized, which is why it remains an open issue for the Japanese.

Jonathan Dresner - 4/11/2009

The kidnapped Japanese issue is a real one, Ms. Paul: The North Koreans seized several (I think as many as a dozen, perhaps more) Japanese citizens from both Japan proper and international sites, and used them as cultural trainers. Language alone will not allow you to pass for native in most societies, so most nations trying to develop long-term embeddable spies do use some kind of native informant for cultural cues and idiomatic language. The Soviets and the Americans both used defectors, but hardly anyone defects to North Korea.

Bob Harper - 4/11/2009

Ms. Paul,

Your use of the locution 'your administration' tells me all I need to know. The rest of the contents of that paragraph tell me more than I need to know. The notion that this is not a dangerous world except WE make it so, and that the United States has gone looking for enemies and wars to generate profits for Halliburton and other "malefactors of the military/industrial complex" is, in my opinion, straight out of the fever swamps of Liberal paranoia. Sorry, but I don't buy that 'narrative', either of the War in Iraq or of the supposed indifference of the Bush Administration to domestic concerns. I'm sorry if that mystifies, puzzles, or offends you, but there it is.

Lorraine Paul - 4/11/2009

Oooops! My mistake I confused him with Wolberg. A pardonable mistake as both 'gentlemen' are interchangeable in their output!

Lorraine Paul - 4/11/2009

Mr Hixson, Bernstein is not the most respected correspondent on HNN. I usually do not stoop to challenging his pathetic utterances. However, the kidnapped Japanese was too good to let pass by! LOL

walter hixson - 4/10/2009

As Mr. Bernstein began with an ad hominem attack, I thought to check up on his own expertise. I found scant published work but did find that he is with the US military command in Seoul. The essence of his message--no point in trying to negotiate with NK--reflects the militarization of foreign policy for which he stands. So what should we do, Mr. Bernstein, continue an armed face off with Kim until he says "uncle"? Your approach perpetuates militarization (and government military employment) but it's not much of a diplomacy.

Lorraine Paul - 4/10/2009

Mr Harper, As I said comparing pots to kettles to frying pans is unproductive.

As an historian, or one, like myself, with an interest in history, you should be aware that there has to be, especially in the case of the United States, an enemy du jour. Hopefully one that citizens can feel morally, financially, intellectually and culturally superior too.

The US had the Russians (USSR), after that union collapsed in 1991 there was a flirtation with the white supremacist South African regime, but that country became ungoverable leading the the collapse of said regime. There was a hiatus for a while, but thankfully and old ally came to the rescue of the ruling elite, Saddam Hussein! However, he was merely a petty dictator, how to raise him to Hitlerian heights? The spin-doctors worked overtime, hence the first Gulf War! The 'story' grew and grew until we had the full Hollywood production complete with Weapons of Mass Destruction and revenge for 9/11. The fact that Saddam had been given 'permission' by the US Ambassador to invade Kuwait, and by 2003 Saddam's WMD could not be found was immaterial. For quite a while the Iraq invasion and ongoing war grabbed the popular imagination whilst schools, hospitals, jobs and Uncle Tom Cobbley and all was ignored by your administration.

Nowadays, as most people in the US agree (see Washington Post) that bin Laden will never be captured, let alone be brought to trial, there is a need for a new boogeyman to etc etc. Who will it be??

As I said previously...no more Iraqs.

Bob Harper - 4/9/2009

Well, North Korea has certainly invaded South Korea, and as for crimes against humanity, the bunch of gangsters running that poor country have spent their time imprisoning, starving, and murdering their own citizens, plus the occasional kidnapped South Korean or Japanese. I suppose that's kept them busy enough.

As for your wholesale endorsement of the 'Bush was evil' mantra so beloved of the chattering classes, I respectfully don't buy it. The notion that courts are the solution to terrorism is dangerously naive. I only hope we don't have to learn that to our great sorrow.

Bob Harper

Lorraine Paul - 4/8/2009

Thank you for your courtesy, Mr Harper. However, I am almost struck speechless that an American citizen still feels that after eight years of Bush and Cheney, that the moral high-ground is still theirs by right. However, it is never productive to compare kettles and frying-pans.

As I wrote previously, how many countries has North Korea invaded and occupied? Further, how often has North Korea dispossessed the population of said countries, been accused of war-crimes, had systemic torture practised in jails, jails which held inmates who never saw a courtroom, went on and destroyed the civilian infra-structure and then pranced around the world waving its tarnished and tattered moral superiority in the face of increasingly inhumane actions?

Well, let us hope that that, thanks to the US electorate, will never happen again.

No more Iraqs!!

Bob Harper - 4/8/2009

Mr. Beatty, congratulations for telling it like it is.
Ms. Paul, sorry you're offended, but the reality of the North Korean regime is far more offensive than anything Mr. Beatty could possibly say.

Lorraine Paul - 4/7/2009

Donald, where did you get your stats? Probably from the same source which invariably over-estimated the old USSR's capabilities.

Furthermore, argue it out with my government and Prof Broinowski, I took my information from their opinions. Oh! dear, I hope they aren't going to be as dreadfully wrong about the situation as Bush & Co were about Iraq and Afghanistan!!

I really, really loved that bizzo about kidnapping Japanese so they could teach their language!?!? Surely even a technologically backward country like North Korea has heard of foreign language tapes. Tooooo bizarre, but amusing nonetheless.

Where you aware that Japan occupied Korea, before there was a North and South, during the WWII? One would have assumed that for convenience's sake several Koreans would have learnt Japanese at that time.

Lorraine Paul - 4/7/2009

I was surprised and am now so pleased to be mistaken.

My apologies and hope I did not offend by my mistake.

Randll Reese Besch - 4/7/2009

I am saying it would be a natural defense reaction. I think all nuclear weapons should be destroyed and dumped back into the uranium mines from whence they came.

Donald Wolberg - 4/7/2009

Let's see: million plus person army, all with Chinese and Russian supplied weapons (twice the size of the American Army and three times the size of S. Korea's army; 600 attack aircraft, all supplied by the Chinese and Russians; 10,000 air to air missiles, all supplied by the Chinese and Russians; 500 ground to ground missiles, home built with designs from China and Russia; 1500 tanks, all supplied by China and Russia; several submarines supplied by China and Russia; chemical warfare components, homegrown; 5-10 nuclear weapons. Not much of a threat, I guess, even though when they last moved across the South, they destroyed 60% of the country and later returned with 600,000 Chinese troops and Russian and Chinese pilots; missile and warhead sales to Iran and Syria; kidnapping Japanese so they can teach Koreans their language; secret police with authority to kill almost at will; diminsihing size of citizens because of near starvation while food is diverted...hmmm, I guess Ms Paul is correct, the North is a peaceful nation at heart and a victim of war mongers.

Lorraine Paul - 4/6/2009

Mr Besch, I am surprised that you would be advocating nuclear weapons proliferation. Especially in a country which is the only one in history to 'experience' the effects of a nuclear holocaust.

Lorraine Paul - 4/6/2009

Mr Beatty, you owe the readers of HNN an apology. That in this day and age, on a website mainly directed at those in academia and others whom one would assume to be well-educated, to come across such an offensive piece of racist, insulting, white-supremacist arrogance is astounding!

Your allusion/comparison to a 1930's black performer who was known for his obsequious manner towards white people, is appalling enough, however your discounting of all other regional players in dealing with North Korea reveals another embedded racist attitude.

Although US interventionist foreign policy has held sway over administrations throughout the last 200 plus years, it has hardly ever been a benign or beneficial influence. When was the last time North Korea invaded another country?

Many Pacific countries have a vested interest in keeping the Pacific region nuclear-free. The last time I looked the US had a Pacific Ocean coast. You might look closer to home when you express your overly-imaginative opinions!

Australia, New Zealand, China, even South Korea itself, along with many other Pacific nations are quite capable of negotiating with each other.

Please keep your distasteful opinions to yourself rather than spreading your particular 'Glen Beck' brand of analytical thought into a delicate and serious discussion.

Randll Reese Besch - 4/6/2009

One thing about egotists is their want to survive. However if we cave it all in for him then he just may end it all. So negotiations with people who can read him and know his psychology are necessary. But playing 'tough' is the way to start confrontations that will lead to war. Having nukes does accord the Mentally Ill Il the deference of diplomacy that wasn't given to Afghanistan or Iraq or Somalia. So far the provocations with nuclear Pakistan are being allowed but for how long?

True China certainly has more sway than Russia or the United States in that area. Yes he does need provocation to retaliate. It is amazing those who are human and yet misread others so well. How do we Keep Il from growing violent and yet keep him in check at the same time till he falls? I would be surprised if Japan doesn't have a secret nuclear weapons program running at this time. They would be foolish not to. Also anti-missile systems off shore would also be a good idea. Sub-sea installations I would think.

John D. Beatty - 4/6/2009

Conveniently ignoring the CLINTON Administration's role in botching relations with North Korea, this is just one more Bush-Bashing screed based solely on the love of the "talk-only" fantasy of diplomatic action beloved of the Academy of Idiots that now run American foreign affairs.

North Korea will do what the Kim regime wants it to do, and the Bobblehead Emperor Barack I of Cook County will step and fetchit because he imagines that the DPRK is a real country, and because another war would harm his image in the polls. In the fullness of time the North will invade the South again to avoid complete collapse, the Academy in the West will find SUV-driving Republican seal-clubbers to be guilty, and the Kim regime will either be wiped off the face of the Earth once and for all or will reign supreme on the Peninsula.

Lewis Bernstein - 4/6/2009

One wonders why no one with any regional expertise contributes to the knowledge base exhibited on this website. One always finds very warmed-over Americanist "expertise" on any piece on foreign policy or foreign relations.
One scarcely knows where to begin with Professor Hixon's collection of wishful thinking and misinterpretations. To be very blunt no one EVER has been able to "negotiate" with the DPRK. They engage in a ritualized dance and have consistently upheld a perfect record of adhering to international agreements --.000, that is never.
The Kim Family Dynasty does not need any so-called militaristic provocations. Everything they do is predicated on ju-che or their doctrine of self-reliance. Their foreign policy actions are designed to play for their internal audience.
The provocative exercise to which he refers is an annual event similar to exercises the US and its allies hold in other venues. Nothing provocative about it--the North Koreans are ALWAYS notified of the exercises in order to avoid any incidents and they always protest. North Korea is here to stay because no one has any incentive to remove Kim. No one can control him either--not the Chinese, not the Russians, not the Japanese, not the Americans and certainly not the South Koreans.

Lorraine Paul - 4/6/2009

This may surprise some of the war-mongers lurking around this website, but most Australians consider that North Korea is a very, very minor threat to the region.

Last night our eminent world affairs experts, Prof Broinowski, stated that North Korea's technological capabilities are nowhere near being able to launch an attack upon anyone within the region. Further, if they even attempted it they are aware of an immediate retaliation from the United States which would annihiliate them.... Is North Korea stupid? I, for one, don't think so.

Thank heaven there is now some commonsense coming out of the White House and the Pentagon.