It has been four years since the United States and North Korea negotiated their framework agreement to dismantle the latter’s clandestine nuclear-weapons program. Progress — if one can call it that — has been slow. Hopes that tensions on the Korean Peninsula would abate have been frustrated. Last weekend, the two governments largely talked past each other about inspections of a suspected North Korean nuclear facility. This week, the two countries, along with South Korea and China, resume the two-plus-two talks that are designed to yield a dialogue between the two Koreas. Expectations are low, but even those willing to be satisfied with purely nominal signs of progress are likely to be disappointed.
Pyongyang’s continuing mistrust of its negotiating partners seems misplaced. South Korea, Japan and the U.S. have offered to provide the North Korean regime with two light-water nuclear reactors and the U.S. promised to supply oil until the reactors were running if North Korea discontinued its nuclear program. (Despite some delays, the U.S. has delivered the fuel as stipulated.) At the same time, South Korean President Kim Dae Jung has initiated his “sunshine” policy, which reverses decades of suspicion toward the North in an effort to build ties between the two Koreas.
In response, the North Koreans have fired a medium-range missile over Japanese territory, launched several spy missions into South Korea and begun work on a suspicious underground facility near its reactor complex in Yongbyon. All the while, the Pyongyang government has been spewing rhetoric that echoes the worst vitriol of the Cold War. Earlier this month, North Korea threatened to abandon the framework agreement.
While Pyongyang’s unremitting hostility seems to make no sense, others see a regime that has but one card to play. A poor, starving country, North Korea knows that only nuclear blackmail keeps it high on the U.S. agenda. It cannot hope to compete with South Korea, so it continues its military bluff. Moreover, hardliners in Pyongyang know that China will provide it with support as a result of historical ties between the two socialist countries, along with Beijing’s desire to maintain a buffer state between it and Seoul’s aggressive capitalism.
In addition, Pyongyang may feel genuinely aggrieved. While the U.S. has delivered the fuel oil as promised, North Korea had hopes that talks with Washington would lead to the opening of liaison offices in the two countries’ capitals and the lifting of the U.S. economic embargo against the North. Neither has occurred and the North Koreans may now feel that only by raising the stakes will they see movement.
Unfortunately, the results may not be what they anticipate. Opposition to the framework agreement is growing in Washington as Republicans look for substantive policy issues to debate with the president. North Korea is never popular in the U.S., and there have been signals that U.S. policy toward Northeast Asia is a likely future battleground. Pyongyang’s belligerence will only play into the hands of congressional hawks.
A similar process is at work in Japan. Last year’s missile test was ammunition for those who call for a harder line against Pyongyang. It awakened many Japanese to the potential military threat posed by North Korea. It also reinvigorated Japan’s support for theater missile defense programs.
That last development could truly change the regional security equation, as a TMD system would have a direct impact on China’s nuclear-weapons program. In this there is an opportunity, however. China has been the great pretender in regional security concerns, demanding a role in security discussions, but oddly reluctant to try to use its influence. Yet rarely has intervention been so blatantly in China’s self-interest. If China truly wants to ensure the survival of the Pyongyang regime and establish itself as a responsible power in the region, it will try to fashion a solution to the current impasse.
The broad outlines of an agreement are easy to see. China would discourage Pyongyang from conducting another missile test (which most experts say is expected) and nudge North Korea toward meaningful talks with Seoul and a resumption of discussions with Tokyo. Japan, the U.S. and South Korea would accelerate efforts to build the light-water reactors. The U.S. would also broaden negotiations with Pyongyang to address the North’s complaints. If it sounds as though Pyongyang has the upper hand, we should heed South Korean President Kim, who has encouraged all who will listen to broaden contacts with North Korea. Engagement is the best weapon we have against the North. That is why they are so scared of it.
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