[Viewpoint] Clout behind U.S.-North Korea policy
It appears increasingly that under the new United States administration, there will be no more reward for North Korean nuclear threats. The United States has now proclaimed it will no longer adopt the policy of inducing the North with economic packages and political recognition as it did during the past 16 years. China and Russia also support the UN Security Council resolution that will completely block the flow of funds into North Korea’s nuclear and missile development projects.
Despite the UN resolution, Pyongyang will continue with its plan to build a “strong and prosperous state” by becoming a nuclear state - firing an intercontinental ballistic missile, accelerating its uranium-based weapons program, making more bombs with nuclear material and carrying out a third nuclear test.
North Korea is in a crisis where the survival of the regime is in danger as leader Kim Jong-il’s health deteriorates while his would-be third-generation successor, Kim’s third son, is still a young man in his 20s.
The chances are high, therefore, that the North Korean leadership will cling to the illusion of becoming a nuclear power, even if the international circumstances get more severe. Moreover, as the United States says it “is tired of buying the same horse twice,” Pyongyang has no incentive to return to the negotiating table.
In Obama’s North Korea policy, however, there are hidden strong points that shouldn’t be overlooked by North Korea. Although they seem to be nothing but plain ordinary policies, they will prove to be powerful.
First, the Obama administration has discarded unilateralism and shifted the focus of its North Korea policy to international cooperation. The first remark President Obama made at the news of the second nuclear test was not “the United States will take action against North Korea.” Instead, he said, “Now, the United States and the international community must take action in response.” He emphasized that the neighboring countries in Asia decided to come forward by saying, “Russia and China, as well as our traditional allies of South Korea and Japan, have all come to the same conclusion.”
International cooperation is an ordinary policy some considered nothing more than a time-consuming triviality for a superpower. In fact, the Clinton and Bush administrations did not hide their disdain.
After a series of U.S.-North Korea direct talks, the Clinton administration signed an agreement ? The Agreed Framework ? with the North in October 1994 in Geneva. Washington unilaterally struck a deal with the North - providing two light-water reactors and half a million tons of heavy oil each year in compensation for freezing an obsolete graphite reactor in Yongbyon.
U.S. unilateralism did not stop there. The Bush administration condemned North Korea, along with Iran and Iraq, as the “Axis of Evil” in 2002.
Subsequently, it brought about the second nuclear crisis when it said that North Korea had clandestinely promoted a nuclear development plan in violation of the Geneva Agreement and had a separate uranium-based development program. Accordingly, there is a view that Bush’s condemnation of the “Axis of Evil” drove the North to pursue a nuclear program.
There are other examples that show U.S. unilateralism obstructed international cooperation. China and other participants in the six-party talks did not show a strong will to punish the North, even though the latter violated the agreements on disablement of its nuclear program three times since 2005.
The importance of international cooperation in dealing with the North Korean nuclear issue is significant. The shift in U.S. policy to international cooperation must have worked positively to make China and Russia - especially China - support the UN Security Council resolution. It is also essential that there be the execution of financial sanctions. Considering that 73 percent of North Korea’s trade relies on China, a financial sanction without China’s participation cannot be effective. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, who was in Seoul in early June, also preferred closer cooperation with countries in Asia than unilateral financial sanctions.
Second, the Obama administration demands that Pyongyang abide by international law and keep the promises it made in the past, instead of trying to strike a deal with the North by making concessions.
The previous U.S. administrations, being surprised at the North’s provocations, made concessions repeatedly - promising an economic package and political recognition, promoting the secretary of state’s visit to Pyongyang and even omitting vital items in the verification regime for the inspection of the North’s nuclear facilities.
Thus, Washington gave Pyongyang the wrong perception that it could get an even bigger piece of the pie whenever it piled on provocations.
Now, North Korea has to realize that the vicious circle of compensation and provocation is broken. On June 6, Obama said, “North Korea’s actions over the last several months have been extraordinarily provocative. We are not intending to continue a policy of rewarding provocation.”
However, North Korea’s illusion to become a nuclear power cannot be dashed by international cooperation and principled North Korea policy only. In dealing with a military dictatorship like North Korea, it’s necessary to show a firm determination that the United States and its allies are ready to respond to North Korea’s provocations with a corresponding show of force.
In South Korea, there are people who worry that hard-line North Korea policy will increase the chances of a military confrontation with the North. In fact, North Korea threatened to nullify the armistice agreement and warned against possible military action along the northern limit line in the West Sea when Seoul decided to fully join in the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative.
But the chances of a North Korean armed conflict, in the absence of a Chinese endorsement, are low.
The equation of the North Korean nuclear issue is complex. Although China is the guardian of North Korea, it will be obliged to cooperate with the United States, South Korea and Japan when the level of provocation by the North exceeds a certain degree. The more the Obama administration puts weight on international cooperation, the harder China will try to resolve the nuclear issue.
The writer is a visiting professor of media studies at Myongji University.
by Park Sung-soo