[OUTLOOK]Narrow differences for peace hereBy requesting the International Atomic Energy Agency to refer Pyeongyang’s violation of its international nuclear weapons agreements to the United Nations Security Council for action, the Bush Administration has placed the two most urgent and dangerous international crises -- Iraq and North Korea ― on the UN’s agenda.
That seems entirely appropriate. Baghdad and Pyeongyang both aspire to nuclear status. Each has violated international nonnuclear commitments. Each appears confident that it can exploit apparent differences among the major powers to escape punitive consequences for its misdeeds.
Iraq and North Korea now test the international community’s readiness to implement principles of collective security. History supplies ample reasons for skepticism that the test will be successfully passed. Collective security rarely works, because the major powers frequently disagree on the nature and seriousness of threats and about the risks they are prepared to run to combat them.
The Iraqi case provides the most recent illustration of this point. The UN Security Council passed Resolution 1441 unanimously. Yet the French and Germans, with apparent support from Moscow and Beijing, now seek to transform the resolution’s substance from disarming Iraq to containing it. Divergent interests among council members have eroded solidarity among NATO allies, diminished the force of a UN ultimatum and reduced Washington’s respect for the Security Council’s relevance. Whether the council will authorize enforcement against Iraq remains up in the air. But the game is not over, and the effort to mobilize international support against Saddam Hussein’s weapons programs has paid some dividends.
The North Korean issue has unfolded differently. Pyeong-yang has violated non-nuclear commitments, but has not yet directly defied a UN Security Council resolution. Washington has foresworn a unilateral resolution of the issue; nor has it embraced “regime change” as an objective.
Ironically, while the United States wants a multilateral forum in which to address the North Korean issue; Pyong-yang’s neighbors seem eager for the United States to resolve the issue through bilateral negotiations with the North.
The United States, South Korea, China, Japan, and Russia all profess shared interests in averting nuclear proliferation. But translating this shared aim into a joint strategy formulating a common strategy is proving elusive.
A further effort to forge one is required, for within weeks Pyeongyang could have crossed the nuclear threshold, assuming it has not done so already. That would pose additional security challenges for Pyeongyang’s neighbors and to U.S. forces in the region.
It could undermine global nonproliferation efforts. It could result in the future transfer of missile materials or weapons to terrorist groups, given the North’s desperate need for cash and the limits on its range of plausible exports. And if North Korea were to experience a political collapse, there would be agonizing questions about who controlled such weapons. Yet dismay rather than alarm characterizes the reactions of North Korea’s neighbors.
To date, policy responses of North Korea’s neighbors have revealed no great unity of purpose. Seoul appears determined to stick to its “sunshine policy,” come hell or high water. Moscow seems committed to a middleman’s role which might at least guarantee the Russians a seat at the table. China has offered a venue for negotiations, while leaving the heavy lifting to others. Japan is holding the line on normalization with North Korea while the nuclear issue remains unresolved. Washington is more inclined to threaten new pressures but such threats are vain if unsupported by others.
As with Iraq, such divergent approaches enable the North to put off hard choices. A successful effort to back Pyeongyang away from the nuclear option will require a greater degree of common purpose and concerted policy among Seoul, Washington, Tokyo, Beijing and Moscow. The logical starting point must be a narrowing of differences between South Korea and the United States. Last week’s conversations between Roh Moo-hyun’s representatives and U.S. officials in Washington do not inspire exalted hopes. But the consequences of failure are high; the rewards for a common diplomatic front obvious; and the need for another try urgent. The objective: to find common ground for a future negotiation with the North. The elements of such a negotiation will be rather predictable. It will have to provide reasonable assurances that we can detect cheating, and clear signals that noncompliance means forfeiture of benefits. We need to warn Pyeongyang with the clear concurrence of its neighbors, that if it fails to end its nuclear program we will make its life even more miserable than Kim Jong-il has managed on his own.
Perhaps the North has decided to take the plunge. In that case, any talks will fail. We then will face perhaps tougher choices, in which case we will know that the other alternatives have been tried.
* The writer , a former U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs and ambassador to Japan, is a professor at Stanford University.
by Michael H. Armacost