[Observer View]Bush discovers multilateralism can workThe decision to reopen North Korea’s nuclear facility to United Nations inspectors may prove to be more than just another move in an endless game of chicken. Over the years, Pyongyang has become masterful at creating crises by approaching the brink of war, only to step back, usually in return for substantial economic concessions.
The high stakes involved are self-evident. The Korean War of 1950-53 took an estimated one million lives, brought American and Chinese forces in direct combat and devastated the Korean Peninsula. The clash with China greatly intensified Cold War tensions and led to an explicit security guarantee for Taiwan.
In U.S. politics, the conflict demolished public support for the Truman administration and fed anti-communist hysteria.
Another war would devastate the Koreas once again, greatly disrupt international politics and could even go nuclear. Additionally, the United States is now mired in Iraq, with precious few forces to spare for any additional wars.
This time, two developments in the wider context of the Korean [nuclear] crisis and accord are distinctive. First, international financial pressure spearheaded by the United States clearly has been instrumental in forcing the rigid communist regime to be more flexible. In March, the Bush administration declared Macao-based Banco Delta Asia to be a renegade institution assisting illegal financial activities by Pyongyang. Macao authorities froze $25 million in North Korean funds; U.S. businesses were banned from dealing with BDA and others followed suit.
Washington then offered to facilitate a return of the funds to Pyongyang in return for nuclear flexibility. This transfer has been carried out, reportedly with assistance from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the Central Bank of Russia and a small private Russian bank, the Far East Commercial Bank.
Second, in the wake of this nuclear-financial negotiation, the Pyongyang regime on June 19 was reported to have launched another missile over the waters between South Korea and Japan.
According to intelligence officials in both countries, the missile had a range of approximately 100 kilometers (62 miles). This was the third such test since May, and reflects a now well-established North Korean propensity to flex airborne muscle in the direction of Japan, the hated former colonial ruler.
Such a move in the midst of the new nuclear flexibility nonetheless seems anomalous, and may be a sign of infighting within North Korea. Cracks in the rigid totalitarian regime could complicate and also facilitate efforts to reach a nuclear agreement. Trigger-happy missile launchers among military extremists may force more moderate factions to rally around Pyongyang’s current efforts to reach a fresh nuclear understanding with other powers.
The promising atmosphere also has highlighted infighting within the Bush administration. President Bush has made clear his very strong support for the agreement [struck in February in the six-party talks], which directly reflects the efforts of the State Department and, specifically, chief negotiator Christopher Hill. Bluntly rejecting criticism of the agreement by John Bolton, his former United Nations ambassador, and other neoconservatives, Bush underscored the importance of “more than one voice” sitting down and negotiating.
The emphasis and praise for multilateral diplomacy and the importance of allies contains no little irony. The first term of the Bush administration was dramatically characterized by a go-it-alone approach to international affairs. The president’s declaration not long after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that other nations were either “with us or against us” aptly summed up an attitude that no special efforts would be made to court or retain allies.
In fairness, the administration has been consistent in emphasizing the roles of the other nations involved in the interplay with North Korea.
This was in part a device to deflect earlier demands by Pyongyang to deal directly with Washington, effectively ignoring Seoul. Nonetheless China, Japan and Russia, along with South Korea and the United States, have played roles in the current important breakthrough. China and North Korea technically are allies, practically major economic partners and Beijing’s role over time in encouraging and pressuring Pyongyang toward flexibility is undeniable.
Christopher Hill and others in the Bush administration deserve credit for the progress made, but the wider structural reality of multilateral cooperation is also important to underscore. President Bush should not only continue to emphasize multilateralism in regard to North Korea, but apply this fundamentally important perspective to other parts of the world as well.
* The writer is the Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
by Arthur I. Cyr