Nuclear concession is possible
The fourth round of the six-party talks is expected to resume next week. While the resumption itself is a meaningful step toward a diplomatic resolution, we need a more specific result this time, such as a declaration of principles. In order to end the nuclear crisis that has continued for more than 15 years, I desperately hope Pyong-yang's "strategic decision" materializes in a visible form.
Most of all, the situation on the Korean Peninsula and its neighbors regarding the nuclear issue has drastically changed since the early 1990s. It requires that Pyongyang make a strategic decision to give up its nuclear program, which it can do. I am not saying North Korea has no choice but to concede because of the Bush Administration's hard-line North Korea policy. Actually, my logic is exactly the opposite. We need to pay more attention to the fact that even if Pyongyang gives up its nuclear program, the regional circumstances have changed in such a way as to guarantee its security.
In the early 1990s, North Korea was completely isolated and helpless. Amid waves of democratic revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989, the Soviet Union had abandoned North Korea, made an alliance with the South, and then eventually was itself disbanded. The Yeltsin Administration of the new Russia had little interest in North Korea. After the Tiananmen Square protests, China was so busy maintaining its own system it could not afford to shield or assist North Korea. At the time, the South Korean government believed that unification led by the South was possible through pressure on the North, and after the death of former North Korean leader Kim Il-sung, "unification through absorption" of the North emerged as a realistic task. While Pyongyang had shown interest in normalizing its relationships with the United States and Japan, there was little progress due to Seoul's opposition and to the passive attitudes of Washington and Tokyo. To North Korea, which was in a weak position in terms of military and economic power, nuclear development must have been a "reasonable alternative" from a military perspective.
However, the situation is different today. As we have seen in the process of the six-party talks so far, South Korea and other nations in the region, such as China and Russia, agree on a power structure that would keep the "status quo." While each nation has its hidden motivations and interests, they have reached a consensus on gradual change through the status quo rather than a radical change of the North Korean regime. Of course, there are some in the United States and Japan who prefer regime change in North Korea, but maintaining the status quo corresponds to the strategic interests of Washington and Tokyo. In other words, North Korea can have a guarantee of security and maintain its current system, at least in the short term, even if it does not persist in nuclear development. Other voices, especially in Japan, criticize South Korea and China's appeasement policies and their economic assistance as having encouraged Pyongyang's uncooperative, brinkmanship strategy. However, the reality is contrary. Because of the tolerant policies of Seoul and Beijing, North Korea can feel secure enough to attempt diplomatic negotiations, despite Washington's hard-line policy. At this juncture, North Korea has little to lose but a lot to gain by giving up its nuclear development program.
It seems that Pyongyang appreciates the situation and is leaning toward making a "strategic decision" to abandon its nuclear program. Yet some hesitate and there are hardliners in the regime, so it keeps making ambiguous moves. It is Seoul's role to encourage a logical judgment of the circumstances to become mainstream inside North Korea.
The North Korean nuclear issue is not just a problem of the Korean Peninsula but also a crucial crossroads for determining the future development of Northeast Asia as a whole. Simply speaking, we stand at a crossroads in which we can either create a cooperative regional order, or fall into the confrontational structure of a new Cold War.
The Korean War, which North Korea started for the "liberation of the people" a half century ago, served as an opportunity for the rearmament of Japan and the establishment of the Cold War between the United States and China. This second crisis that is unfolding on the Korean Peninsula has once again been exploited to militarize Japan to a new level and invite a new Cold War between the United States and China. The strengthened alliance between the United States and Japan, the development of a missile defense system, and the rapid rise of rightists in Japan which has fueled calls to revise the peace constitution and enact laws to rearm the country, wouldn't have been possible in terms of domestic politics if it weren't for the threat from North Korea. Of course, it cannot be denied that the threat from the North has been exaggerated. However, for the interests of the Korean Peninsula, we need to think strategically on a grander scale, taking into consideration how the situation of the region as a whole is unfolding.
* The writer is a professor of international relations at Rikkyo University in Japan. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.