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DPRK diplomacy or brinkmanship?

by Jeff Kingston

TARGET NORTH KOREA: Pushing North Korea to the Brink of Nuclear Catastrophe, by Gavan McCormack. New York: Nation Books, 228 pp., 2004, $13.95 (paper).

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s gamble on a trip to Pyongyang seems to have paid off, giving him a boost in the polls, reuniting some of the abductee families and paving the way for Japanese participation in multilateral talks. Rescuing bilateral relations from the deep freeze took political courage, but it remains to be seen if this opportunity will fade before it is tapped.

U.S. President George W. Bush’s speechwriter says he included North Korea in the “axis of evil” because he did not want to convey an impression that the United States was singling out Islamic nations. Was this helpful?

“Target North Korea” argues that the threatening posture of the U.S. and demonization of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has stoked suspicions and tensions in the region. Gavan McCormack believes that the DPRK “harbors no aggressive or fanatical threat to the region or the world and that its defiance masks an appeal to normalize relations and ‘come in from the cold.’ “

Readers accustomed to seeing the DPRK portrayed as a menacing rogue are shown how the world looks from Pyongyang’s embattled perspective.

In order to avoid Iraq’s fate, North Korea has been “flaunting its weaponry.” McCormack believes that the insistence on North Korean nuclear disarmament as a precondition for normalization is a recipe for deadlock. Given that Libya did not actually give up any weapons of mass destruction, and merely abandoned failed efforts to develop WMD, its decision is of limited relevance to a situation where everyone seems to think that the nuclear threshold has been breached.

Clearly, McCormack is no fan of the DPRK and acknowledges its shortcomings in detail, but in his view, “to label North Korea ‘terrorist’ is neither to grasp the burden of the past, nor to offer any prescription for the present or future.” He points out that “as the record in Afghanistan and Iraq shows, the attempt to resolve complex problems of violence and terror by counterviolence and counterterror offers no prospect of a lasting solution.”

He sees more hope in the thickening web of negotiation and cooperation between South and North Korea and an alternative regional order that is not subservient to the “American imperium.”

“Paradoxically, Japan is easier to rein in as long as North Korea is a threat,” McCormack points out. One reason that the Japanese government is resigned to dispatching Self-Defense Force troops to Iraq is its perceived need for U.S. protection from North Korea. In McCormack’s view, though, this threat is actually elevated due to U.S. policies. The North Korean threat is especially useful to the U.S. in generating pressures on Japan to shed its Article 9 military allergies and become, in the words of U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, the “Britain of the Far East.”

McCormack argues that Kim Jong Il sought to advance normalization by taking the bold step of admitting that DPRK security forces had abducted Japanese nationals. However, the Japanese media’s obsessive coverage of the abduction issue fanned public antagonism toward North Korea and created a major obstacle to normalization.

The Japanese government’s original agreement to let five abductees visit Japan and return to North Korea revealed a Foreign Ministry sadly out of touch with prevailing realities. Clearly it did not anticipate the public reaction nor the intervention of neocon politicians, and was adroitly outmaneuvered and elbowed aside in an area that is normally its turf-diplomacy. It had to renege on an agreement that was intended as a confidence-building measure.

Thus Kim’s attempt to promote a thaw in relations ended with ties in the deep freeze, in no small part due to Foreign Ministry miscues. Japanese neocons, the abductee families and their conservative support groups have orchestrated a national campaign to revile reporters, academics and diplomats who don’t tow the hardline on North Korea.

Given that tens of thousands of Koreans were abducted in the 1930s and 1940s to work in Japanese factories and mines, or as sex slaves in military brothels, it is understandable that “For Koreans, the ensuing hubbub in Japan, during which the North Korean regime’s abductions became quite literally the crime of the century and the Japanese ultimate victims of Asian brutality, had a painful air of unreality.”

Apparently, compensation is now demanded on behalf of the abductees. The author fumes: “In this there was a breathtaking insensitivity, if not hypocrisy, since Tokyo has always ruled out compensation to the former “comfort women,” slave laborers and other victims of the colonial era, many of them abducted.”

Japan is playing a constructive role, urging the U.S. to negotiate, as it knows “all too well from its own experience what a desperate, isolated leader-worshipping and highly militarized regime will do if threatened by a blockade and the cutoff of vital resources.”

Brinkmanship generates too many chances for miscalculation in a situation where the consequences could be catastrophic; this helps explain why the Bush administration sensibly flip-flopped on negotiating with the DPRK.