[OUTLOOK]Framework for engaging North

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[OUTLOOK]Framework for engaging North

A summit between Japan's prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, and Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, is set for Friday in Moscow. During the first official visit by a Japanese prime minister to Russia in five years, the two leaders will discuss the dispute over the four Kuril islands and Asian security, with particular emphasis on North Korea's nuclear program. The two sides have vowed to continue their efforts to push North Korea to halt its nuclear weapons program.

If North Korea possesses nuclear weapons, peace and stability across Northeast Asia would collapse. In Japan, a serious question concerning the value and utility of the U.S.-Japan alliance would arise. Japan and South Korea would harbor suspicions against each other concerning commitments not to pursue nuclear weapons development. China might push an expansion of its military power, including adding to its nuclear arsenal, as a means of "insuring" its security from its neighbors' actions.

If North Korea declared itself a nuclear power, there is no question the Siberian area of Russia would be fortified again. The image of the United States would be greatly damaged. Japan and South Korea would try desperately to escape from the influence of the United States. The United States, on the other hand, might try to relinquish its involvement in Asia. It is possible that the United States might withdraw its troops from the Korean Peninsula. In the end, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty would become a thing of the past.

If the standoff continues, the crisis that swept across Asia in 1994 might return. One thing for sure is that this time, there will not be a Jimmy Carter. even if we are pushed to the edge of the cliff.

The time has come for our neighbors and friends, other than the United States and North Korea, to come forward to break the deadlock through diplomacy. Russia might join the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization under the absolute premise that North Korea gives up on its plan to develop nuclear weapons without conditions.

A reorganization of KEDO might be even better if China can join the group, because Beijing has been providing food and fuel to North Korea and continues to do so even now. That is, of course, not related to support from KEDO. Maybe the fuel assistance can be settled within KEDO through multinational cooperation. If we can do that, KEDO would become an organization consisting of Korea, the United States, China, Japan and Russia.

Then North Korea can get international support for its energy supplies while pursuing an understanding on its "system management" that stands at the center of its political interests. It can also expect pressure from the United States to be relieved. The only concern is whether the United States would agree to this plan.

There are officials within the Bush administration who insist that the United States should eradicate North Korea's system completely and ignore KEDO and the North Korea-U.S. nuclear agreement. To them, the best denuclearization policy is ending the North's political system. But they understand, if the United States decides to confront the North, there could be other side effects, such as the North's acceleration of its nuclear development and a huge outflow of refugees. Either of the two scenarios would require the international community to spend an enormous amount of money. Those hard-liners within the Bush administration might already recognize that the cost of exercising its power is far more than maintaining a low profile.

War cannot be an option. Just a few kilometers away from North Korea are about 37,000 U.S. soldiers who go to bed every night with chemical masks lying next to them. Moreover, China shares a border with the North.

Ultimately, the United States will return to engagement with the North. But that would be on the premise that the North discard its nuclear weapons program.

KEDO provides an appropriate mechanism for the United States to return to an engagement policy. KEDO is not simply an energy-providing organization. It is the political connection that ties the United States with North Korea, which in a way allows tacit acceptance of the North's system. This is what bothers the hard-liners in Washington and Tokyo, because their interest lies in subverting the North's political system. But they, too, need to examine carefully the risks involved in confronting the North directly. Most importantly, they have to ask themselves what they expect of a reunified Korea. The United States needs to come up with a step-by-step plan that ensures a variety of interests for the North while guiding it to open its government to foreign relations and demilitarize its economy.

Korea, the United States and Japan must seek ways to reorganize KEDO, first by encouraging Russia and China to join the organization and eventually persuading the North to abandon its nuclear weapons development program. The summit between Japan and Russia is the first step toward that plan. Japan and Korea must also work to strengthen policies cooperatively toward that direction.

by Yoichi Hunabashi

* The writer is a senior reporter of the Asahi Shimbun.
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