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Will 1999 bring the second North Korean nuclear crisis in five years, perhaps leading to a military confrontation similar to the recent U.S. attack on Iraq, or can such a confrontation be avoided? Although heightened tensions may be inevitable in the coming months, the ability of policymakers in Washington, Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing to develop a coordinated response to these threats will determine the success or failure of diplomacy with Pyongyang.

The consensus underlying the Geneva agreement has been threatened in recent months by the discovery of a construction site in North Korea that could potentially be used for nuclear purposes and North Korea’s three-stage rocket launch has multiplied doubts about the viability of the U.S.-DPRK Geneva Agreed Framework in Washington and Tokyo. These doubts have severely damaged the political viability of the agreement with North Korea, while underscoring the importance of ensuring that North Korean nuclear and missile capabilities do not expand.

The last crisis in 1994 was resolved through negotiation of the Agreed Framework and the creation of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization. Pledges of diplomatic and financial support from Seoul and Tokyo were essential prerequisites for Washington to successfully conclude the agreement with Pyongyang. It was essential that the strategic objectives of South Korea and Japan be satisfied before they would promise the political and financial support for KEDO and the light-water reactor project that were necessary to sustain the deal.

The review of U.S. policy toward North Korea currently being conducted by former Defense Secretary William Perry will have a major impact on the direction of U.S. policy toward the Korean Peninsula. To be successful, the review must provide a diplomatic strategy for engaging North Korea that can gain bipartisan Congressional support while harmonizing the divergent strategic priorities of Washington, Tokyo and Seoul. This means resolving the nuclear and missile problems that head the list of concerns in Washington and Tokyo respectively, without sacrificing prospects for increased inter-Korean dialogue and exchange emphasized by South Korean President Kim Dae Jung. The review must also take into account the interests of Beijing.

Perry underscored the importance of consulting and coordinating regional interests toward North Korea by beginning his review with a fact-finding visit to Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing. Such an approach takes on added importance when one considers the time-honored North Korean strategy of playing larger powers and allies against each other to enhance negotiating leverage. His review will be influenced by any progress made in negotiations with Pyongyang over regular on-site inspections of the newly-suspected nuclear site. If the North Koreans show some flexibility, Perry’s policy review may be more progressive. Otherwise, North Korean inflexibility may constrain Perry’s recommendations and increase the possibility of a more confrontational policy.

The foremost challenge Perry faces in adopting a comprehensive policy is to reconcile South Korean President Kim Dae Jung’s approach with expectations in the U.S. Congress. Kim’s call for a “package solution” advocates unconditional sanctions lifting and normalization between the United States and North Korea as the basis for greater North Korean cooperation, while congressmen concerned with nonproliferation insist on intrusive inspections or a policy of confrontation. One way of bridging the gap might be to view the “package solution” as the second stage of a two-stage process, the initial stage of which would be for both sides to reaffirm their commitments under the Agreed Framework, including political and financial commitments by the U.S., South Korea and Japan to pay for the deal. Only with the foundation of the Agreed Framework in place, will it be possible to negotiate a bigger deal.

The second major challenge is to formulate a strategy that can successfully address concerns — particularly strong in Tokyo — about North Korean missile development, production and exports. Even prior to the North Korean launch last August, Pyongyang had indicated its willingness to make a deal while insisting on its sovereign right to continue development and exports, yet U.S.-DPRK missile talks have shown no progress and Tokyo currently has no effective diplomatic channels to pursue the issue.

One possible approach to the missile question might be a combined U.S.-Japan diplomatic effort that seeks to enhance Japan’s diplomatic role as a partner with the U.S. in dealing with North Korea while gaining financial support from Tokyo necessary to cut a deal with Pyongyang. Congress may not be willing to finance a deal because North Korean missiles do not directly threaten U.S. territory, but a deal to halt North Korean missile proliferation is directly in Japan’s national security interest. Such an approach would enhance Japan’s diplomatic role through coordinated diplomacy with the U.S. Tokyo would provide financial incentives necessary to curb North Korean missile development and production while Washington would remain responsible for verifying North Korea’s compliance with such a deal.

Finally, practical cooperation with China to address regional nuclear and missile proliferation problems must be enhanced. Washington and Beijing share the same desires for stability on the Korean Peninsula and are cooperating in Four Party Talks. However, the phrase “constructive strategic partnership” used to describe U.S.-China relations will not have real meaning without deeper substantive cooperation on Korean Peninsula related issues. In particular, China’s promises and pledges on nuclear and missile proliferation issues in recent years should be backed by participation in KEDO and by more active quiet diplomacy to deter additional North Korean missile tests.

Perry’s policy review can only provide a road map for a fully coordinated approach to North Korea that fulfills the strategic objectives of Washington, Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing. The task of actually pursuing such a path will also require persistent political leadership from all capitols. However, in the absence of a road map or effective political leadership, it may be impossible to avoid a deeper and more costly confrontation.

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