[OUTLOOK]Unified front needed with NorthThe United States is often accused of “unilateralism” in both Asia and Europe. Strangely enough, when Washington does try multilateralism, as in the case of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, the Americans are not very successful.
Certainly, the Bush administration tried to do the right thing ― to harness a diplomatic coalition among North Korea’s neighbors China, Russia, Japan and South Korea. The idea was to peacefully confront Pyeongyang with a “coalition of the unwilling,” that is, with a group of influential states in the region that would signal: “We are not willing to accept your nuclear ambitions and your generally destabilizing behavior.”
But even though everybody else is very worried about Kim Jong-il, nobody seems willing to risk a strong message of displeasure. Somehow, Moscow, Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo seem to act as if this were mainly America’s problem. It isn’t, of course.
Long before North Korean nuclear missiles will be able to reach the United States, they will have the range to hit neighboring countries. And no country is more threatened by a conventional assault from the North than South Korea, whose capital is within range of Pyeongyang’s artillery.
South Korea’s new president, Roh Moo-hyun, believes that the best way to deal with a dangerous neighbor is to appease him. As he recently told Newsweek: “I want to stress that North Korea is opening up and that it is already changing. If we give them what they desperately want ― regime security, normal treatment and economic assistance ― they will be willing to give up their nuclear ambitions. We should therefore not treat them as criminals.”
I wonder whether this is the right prescription. After all, the United States gave Pyeongyang precisely that in 1994: assurances, assistance with the development of peaceful nuclear power and energy aid. Yet, North Korea took these goodies and continued with the secret development of its nuclear weapons program.
And what did Mr. Roh get in exchange for his friendly overtures? Just as he was sworn in as president on Feb. 25, the North test-fired a missile into the Sea of Japan. One day later, North Korea reactivated its nuclear reactor at Yeongbyeon. This was precisely the reactor that was mothballed under the 1994 deal with the U.S. because it could produce plutonium, one of the two possible ingredients for a nuclear bomb (the other is uranium).
The next warning to watch for is the reactivation of the reprocessing plant, also at Yeongbyeon. In order to make a bomb, it is not enough to have spent fuel rods that come out of a reactor. You need to separate the plutonium inside from the non-fissionable rest. This is what the reprocessing plant will do if it goes back on line.
At this point, we will know beyond any doubt that the purpose is to make nuclear bombs and not just to increase pressure on the U.S. and South Korea to deliver fuel, economic aid and diplomatic niceties.
Surely, it should not come to this. Surely, it is high time for multilateralism among those nations that are most concerned. Surely, nobody wants the U.S. to bomb the North’s nuclear facilities once it can turn its attention from Saddam Hussein to Kim Jong-il.
It is true what Mr. Roh said: You need to give your opponent incentives for cooperation. But diplomacy is about more than just handing out goodies. It needs sticks as well as carrots. Kim Jong-il may be irrational, but he is not foolish. If he knows that he can no longer separate Seoul from Washington, if Tokyo, Beijing and Moscow signal that he has gone far enough, he will change his calculations.
Seoul’s “sunshine policy” now faces a new and totally unexpected problem. You can suddenly hear voices in Washington that argue: “Let’s think carefully about the unthinkable, which is to remove our troops from the South. They are in a dangerously exposed position that allows Pyeongyang to blackmail us endlessly. Instead of deterring the North, they deter us from acting against its nuclear threat. But if we take them out, we will no longer have to fear an attack on them. Then we will be free to use air power against the North’s nuclear facilities.”
Would this increase South Korea’s security? It would be better to act multilaterally, together with all parties concerned.
The point is neither to bomb the North nor to effect a regime change in Pyeongyang. The task is to confront Pyeongyang with the right mix of sticks and carrots delivered by each and all ― by China, Russia, Japan and South Korea.
The goal is to help North Korea’s suffering population and to stop its nuclear weapons program. Once Pyeongyang has them, there will be little “sunshine” over the Korean Peninsula. Both Koreas deserve better.
* The author is editor of Die Zeit, a German weekly, and an associate of the Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University.
by Josef Joffe