[OVERSEAS VIEW]Disconnect between allies helps the NorthIt was once considered axiomatic that neither the U.S. nor South Korea had much of a policy toward Pyongyang unless the two countries were working on parallel tracks. This premise evidently is not shared by President George W. Bush or President Roh Moo-hyun.
Serious efforts to forge coordinated policies toward North Korea have broken down. Today, South Korean and U.S. strategies to achieve a non-nuclear Korea work at cross purposes with one another. Mutual trust is evaporating, and behind the scenes, officials on both sides scarcely conceal their doubts about the other’s approach and motives.
The U.S. policy toward North Korea seems again to have veered to the right, perhaps to firm up support from the GOP’s conservative base before mid-term elections in November.
The administration has been hyping its targeted sanctions against a Macao bank. The first North Korean refugees were recently accepted in the United States, following the 2004 enactment of the North Korea Human Rights Act. Ambassador Jay Lefkowitz has been visibly making the rounds, excoriating Kim Jong-il’s regime.
Curiously, the Bush Administration recently seemed to encourage reports that it was exploring a new negotiating tactic ― talks with the North about a peace treaty while negotiating at the same time over the nuclear issue.
But it doesn’t appear there is much fire behind this smoke. Christopher Hill was not permitted to engage in any direct contact with a North Korean interlocutor during Track II discussions in Tokyo last month. When Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Washington, he and President Bush hardly spent enough time together to make headway on the vexing North Korean question. The six-party talks remain stalled. And with his hands full in the Middle East, the president’s foreign policy team seems almost relieved to keep the North Korean problem on the back burner.
If the Bush administration exhibits no sense of urgency on the North Korean nuclear issue, President Roh conveys the impression that it is no longer on Seoul’s policy agenda. Perhaps he is too busy arranging expanded economic cooperation with Pyongyang to worry much about it.
He avoids any mention of human rights in the North, presumably for fear of offending the ever-sensitive Kim Jong-il. He actively facilitates Kim Dae-jung’s plans for another sojourn in Pyongyang, hoping to elicit an invitation for his own visit. If this underlines the lack of reciprocity in the relationship, never mind.
The results of this unhappy divergence in policy between the U.S. and South Korea are unhappily all too clear. The six-party talks are moribund.
The parties directly concerned go through the motions of consultation, but it has become a dialogue of the deaf.
North Korea is the only beneficiary. It continues to build up its nuclear capabilities without paying a price for ignoring ― indeed, defying ― the concerns of its neighbors and the United States.
Tacit acquiescence to North Korea’s nuclear activities will have large consequences that we will regret. If nothing is done, pressure on other Northeast Asian countries ― above all, Japan ― to cross the nuclear threshold will grow. Global non-proliferation norms will be further undermined. And if we did not confront enough trouble in the Middle East already, imagine the region with Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and, perhaps, Egypt equipped with nuclear arsenals. With each addition to this once-exclusive club, others will find nuclear status irresistible. The deterrence equation, which was sufficiently complex and demanding in a bipolar world, will become exponentially more dangerous.
It is high time Washington and Seoul got serious. Time is not an ally. Diplomacy must be infused with a sense of urgency. Figuring out what to do is not exactly rocket science. The September 15th Agreement on General Principles provides a point of departure. The bargaining should now be directed at setting a schedule for each side to carry out the obligations they agreed to in principle last fall.
For America, this means relinquishing its occasional preoccupation with “regime change.” No serious strategy of this kind is feasible without the active collaboration of South Korea and/or China. Yet both are seeking to prop up Kim Jong-il’s government, not hasten its demise.
A negotiation to dismantle Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal will inevitably require security assurances and economic benefits in return. These are incompatible with efforts to undermine or subvert North Korea.
As for Seoul, it is time for it to restore credibility to its own policy. If President Roh’s oft-repeated assertion that Korea will neither “tolerate” nor “accept” a nuclear North Korea means anything, there must be some link between North Korea’s nuclear activities and the economic and political concessions Seoul appears so eager to bestow on its northern neighbor. Without such a link, Pyongyang has little incentive to rejoin the negotiations.
It’s decision time, and we will shortly see whether Washington and Seoul can be taken seriously on this issue.
* The writer, a former U.S. ambassador to Japan, is a professor at Stanford University.
by Michael H. Armacost