The Six-Power Route to Resolution

Posted in Koreas , Asia | 29-Oct-03 | Author: Henry Kissinger| Source: Washington Post

North (L) and South Korean soldiers at the border dividing the two Koreas.
When, in a signal achievement for American diplomacy, North Korea abandoned its insistence on bilateral talks with the United States and agreed to a discussions in a new forum, it created an important moment of opportunity. The North's agreement to multilateral talks raises the possibility of action to do away with the threat of an accumulation of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a sinister regime and also to design a system of political restraints, define a way to integrate a reforming North Korea into the international system and create incentives for enforcement by all the major powers.

The forum agreed to by Pyongyang would consist of North and South Korea, the United States, China, Japan and Russia. China's role in this process is crucial; it is North Korea's ally and principal trading partner. Beijing knows that a North Korean nuclear military capability would bring nearer to reality its nightmare of a Japanese military nuclear program. It also understands that a permanent Korean crisis would complicate its own domestic reform and political consolidation at a most sensitive time. In the past year China has carried out the most sweeping peaceful renewal of leadership in its modern history. An additional degree of urgency is provided by China's hosting of the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008 and the World Exposition in Shanghai in 2010. Symbols of national consolidation and reform after decades of exertion and turmoil, these projects are threatened by protracted crisis and strategic uncertainty at China's borders, which also risk straining China's relationship with the United States.

China's conduct has left little doubt that it seeks a resolution, and urgently. It has declared a North Korean nuclear military program unacceptable and has been the driving force in assembling the new forum. But it can help produce such an outcome only within a political framework that ends Pyongyang's nuclear program without a political collapse. At a minimum, China seeks some control over the political evolution in North Korea.

Cooperation with China -- and the other major powers of Asia -- is crucial to ensure a common stand with America's ally in South Korea, without whose support it would be very difficult to assemble the pressures needed to break a deadlock. Objectively, South Korea is the country most threatened by nuclear weapons in North Korea. And Pyongyang's ultimate goal undoubtedly is to separate South Korea from its allies and undermine Seoul's domestic politics. A new generation has grown up in South Korea with no memory of America's role in liberating Korea, of the Korean War that prevented a new subjugation, or of the arduous process by which the country built itself, with the strong support of the United States, into a modern industrial state and a functioning democracy. Combining some of the European radicalism of the 1960s with a heavy dose of South Korean nationalism, this generation is agitating for a new definition of South Korea's international role, substantially modifying its traditional alliance with the United States. It provided the impetus for the so-called Sunshine Policy of the last two South Korean presidents, which seeks to bring about the unification of Korea by the conciliation of Pyongyang.

An ally of the United States with respect to protection of its territory, South Korea sees itself as a mediator in political relations with the North. In Seoul's view, nuclear weapons in North Korea do not add significantly to South Korea's peril, which is defined by some 10,000 artillery pieces located along the Demilitarized Zone within range of the capital. Hence many Koreans -- including important elements of the government -- even when they pay lip service to the American view of the emerging North Korean nuclear military capacity, are loath to support the active diplomacy it implies and even more to accept a last resort to force if diplomacy fails. But South Korea would be reluctant to leave itself at the mercy of North Korea by challenging China, Japan, Russia and America if they are united on Korean policy.

North Korea's truculence exaggerates the real options faced by that brutal and isolated regime. It has tried to blackmail the United States into a bilateral negotiation in which it would demand a nonaggression treaty and economic aid in return for meeting some American concerns about its nuclear weapons. Its purpose is to appear as the national spokesman for all of Korea in the field of security, to stigmatize the United States as the potential aggressor and to achieve a platform for permanent blackmail by alleging that America is violating its nonaggression pledge. But the blackmail has not worked and cannot succeed; indeed, it has generated a diplomacy that is in the process of reversing the balance of pressures. Despite its fierce rhetoric, North Korea has no military options that lead to its desired outcomes. (The threat of shelling Seoul is a way to commit suicide, not bring about political results.) Pyongyang's present policy leaves it with the choice of gradual disintegration of its economy or a spasm of violence that will destroy the regime. Its most effective bargaining chip is the threat of its collapse -- a strategy that has its limits.

Of the other countries participating in the six-power forum, Japan is in the process of evolving a more assertive national policy, for the time being still closely tied to the United States. But great care is needed to maintain the present compatibility of foreign policies. Russia has a general interest in preventing proliferation, and it seeks a seat at the table to emphasize its great-power status. It has actively promoted bilateral consultations with the parties prior to the six-power forum, which is expected to meet in Beijing. And Russian President Vladimir Putin is too astute a student of international politics not to understand that a repetition of Russia's confrontational policy on Iraq would strain its political and personal relationship with the United States.

North Korea is suspected of launching another surface-to-ship missile as part of annual military exercises
Korea policy thus merges with America's ability to weave its relations with all the great powers into a long-term design in which Chinese domestic and strategic necessities, Japanese security concerns and Russian geopolitical aims merge to overcome Seoul's hesitations in developing the pressures needed to bring about the necessary outcome. And though Europe is not participating in the six-power forum, it has a major interest in nonproliferation. Intensive consultations with our principal allies would do much to restore a sense of Atlantic common destiny. Such a policy must avoid the mistakes of the failed Framework Agreement of 1994, which overlooked the political imperatives. It needs to reflect the following principles:
  • The bilateral route urged by North Korea is a trap and the demand for a nonaggression pact a canard. The proposition that the most Stalinist regime in the world would be reassured by promises from what it regularly vilifies as "capitalist scum" defies belief. Bilateral negotiations would, after a brief period of relief, strain America's relations with Seoul; South Korean nationalists would attack American diplomacy as making either too few concessions or too many. A bilateral agreement cannot engage the interests of other countries whose help is needed to sustain Northeast Asian stability. Of course, negotiators in any forum are free to exchange views with their colleagues. But the United States must resist the siren song of using the six-power forum as a facade for bilateral U.S.-North Korea talks as the key element or of luring Pyongyang to a conference with that prospect.

  • Containment is not a desirable diplomatic option, though it may in the end become a strategic necessity. Some believe that negotiations are unlikely to bring about the denuclearization of North Korea under acceptable conditions and that therefore the best course is to contain its consequences while concentrating on regime change. And the United States does have technological options to support such a course: It is building a missile defense that should be able to defeat at least the early stages of a North Korean nuclear and missile program. We are in a position to accelerate missile defenses and missile deployments in Japan and other allied countries around the periphery of Asia. At the same time, a policy that acquiesces in a North Korean nuclear capability in the name of containment would lead to a Japanese military nuclear program and major changes in Chinese and Japanese foreign policy. Containment might become a last resort after all diplomatic avenues have been exhausted; it should not be the preferred American option.

  • No regime deserves extirpation more than the brutal totalitarians in Pyongyang. But to state this as the objective of short-term American policy would lose the cooperation of China and Japan and drive South Korea into open opposition. China, Japan, Russia and South Korea have a stake in avoiding turmoil on the Korean peninsula. They seem prepared to work for an outcome that prevents an immediate nuclear crisis, but only at the price of safeguarding the prospect of political evolution in North Korea (if not necessarily the Kim Jong Il regime).

  • A crucial decision concerns the amount of time available for meaningful negotiations. President Bush has declared a North Korean nuclear military program unacceptable to the United States. Such sober observers as former secretary of defense William Perry have warned that once North Korea has completed reprocessing the fuel rods it withdrew from international control in 2002, war will become close to inevitable. The negotiations must not permit Pyongyang to turn it into a delaying action to enable North Korea to complete this process. Policy must begin with a time limit -- at least an internal one -- or with North Korea's agreement to freeze its program under strict international control while negotiations are taking place.
A negotiation that links the nuclear concerns of other countries with legitimate security and political concerns of North Korea would need to include the following: a denuclearization of North Korea that is complete, verifiable and irreversible; a commitment by the non-nuclear members of the six-power forum not to engage in military nuclear programs (to maintain the non-nuclear status of Japan and South Korea); an opportunity for North Korea to enter the international political system with the provisos described below; a commitment by all the parties not to use force in relation to each other provided that the nuclear provisions of the agreement are observed (a multilateral reciprocal nonaggression pledge -- not one that singles out the United States.). Most Americans will gag at the prospect of North Korean reform under the current leadership. And, in fact, the United States cannot go further than to desist from active measures to destabilize or overthrow the North Korean regime together with a continuation of humanitarian aid.

The current Pyongyang regime must reform -- or it will erode -- whatever American policy. All the six-power forum can do is to allow time for either process. The frequent speculation regarding the incentives required to encourage China (or others) to support American policy on North Korea misses the point. China -- and other countries -- will take the necessary measures only if they conceive them to be in a common interest; what we should seek is cooperation in a global design, not acquiescence in an American arms control formula. For if that effort fails, each nation will have to consider its options in ridding the world of the scourge of nuclear proliferation or of living with its disastrous consequences.