[Letter to the editor]U.S. needs to reverse policy to end crisisLast week, another round of the six-party talks ended in a bitter disappointment. In September of last year, the talks ostensibly produced a breakthrough ― Pyongyang agreed to give up its nuclear arms program in return for American guarantees to its security. However, Korea watchers who rushed to celebrate Pyongyang’s promise soon realized that in reality nothing has changed. Nothing will change as long as the United States continues to project ambiguous intentions to Pyongyang.
Indeed, the United States is willing to provide the North Korean regime with guarantees to its security. However, the American administration also persists in its efforts to promptly and forcefully push democracy in the North. This approach is congruent with neo-conservative notions that have little faith in reaching a peaceful resolution to the nuclear conundrum through engagement with the current regime in Pyongyang. From that perspective, some scholars suggest bypassing the regime and engaging the North Korean people so they gain enough power to topple the regime and turn North Korea into a democratic nuclear-free country, killing two birds with one stone. However, is it a realistic scenario? Probably, it is not.
Firstly, the United States lacks the tools effective enough to bring about a transition to democracy in North Korea. Secondly, the North Korean domestic environment is not ripe for a successful democracy. Two major factors dramatically enervate North Korea’s vulnerability to American pressure: the policy differences between Washington and Seoul, which prefers to conduct a policy of economic engagement with the North; and China’s political and growing economic support of the Kim Jong-il regime.
China is North Korea’s largest trading partner (South Korea follows its lead), accounting for 39 percent of North Korean foreign trade. In recent years, China has stepped up its economic support and trade with North Korea, recreating the heyday of Moscow-Pyongyang trade relations in the ’80s. Thus, the trade volume between the two climbed from merely 0.5 billion dollars at the end of the ’90s to around 1.5 billion dollars in 2005. From that perspective, Andrei Lankov, a renowned Korea watcher, estimates that “one or two billion dollars a year are sufficient to keep Pyongyang afloat. This is a large sum, but quite affordable for China.”
Beijing views North Korea as a northern gate to China. A triumph of democratic notions in the North might send the wrong message to Chinese students and reinforce centrifugal forces, such as economic disparity and separatism in different ethnic and religious minorities, which danger China’s domestic coherency.
Thus, China would not only be uncooperative with an American effort to end Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program by pushing democracy or by using punitive measures with the hope of toppling the regime, but would likely do whatever it can in order to thwart it. China has already illustrated its intentions following North Korea’s first nuclear detonation. Though it criticized North Korea’s “flagrant” move, China also blocked an American-led UN resolution draft countering North Korean proliferation that included the option of military enforcement.
Moreover, long-term economic, geo-political and social linkages, which are vital for promoting democracy, do not exist between North Korea and the democratic world. Producing meaningful linkages with North Korea would require not only a shift in American policy toward engagement with Pyongyang, but also years of interaction with the North. Continuing its current ambiguous policy of willingness to provide North Korea with guarantees to its security on the one hand and forcefully pushing for a regime change and democracy on the other, the Bush administration hinders not only a possible resolution to the nuclear issue but also a successful transition to democracy in the North.
Under the current circumstances, the solution to the North Korean nuclear problem is not in the six-party talks but rather in a volte-face required in American policy. Engaging the regime in Pyongyang and forgoing endeavors to forcefully push democracy in North Korea are prerequisites to a lasting peace. The sooner the United States comes to terms with the limitations of its economic, diplomatic and military clout in Northeast Asia the earlier this can take place. Only then can the six-party mechanism succeed. Niv Farago, Seoul