"Kim could make Obama flinch"
TOKYO - The problem of North Korea's intractable nuclear development could grow even worse for Tokyo and Seoul if Barack Obama, the next United States president, seeks direct diplomacy without preconditions to end the threat from Pyongyang. Experts in East Asia are raising serious concerns about the adverse effects of the next US administration's possible conciliatory approach against North Korea on regional security.
Obama, who has said he is willing to meet with the leaders of some of the US's "enemies", including Iran and North Korea, seems to believe the US can largely exercise its own discretion in coping bilaterally with North Korean issues, possibly with new incentives for it to completely abandon its nuclear weapons program, such as normalization of ties and a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War, following the US delisting of Pyongyang from a terror blacklist last month.
But Obama's relative go-it-alone diplomatic approach on defusing the North Korean nuclear crisis could definitely upset the US's Asian allies Japan and South Korea, as it could damage the ongoing process of the six-party talks, a common political and regional safety valve for all of the six countries: North and South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the US. Obama could even play into the hands of Dear Leader Kim Jong-il.
"Should the next US administration embrace policies such as direct negotiations, and with a summit meeting even in its sight, this would pose a grave challenge to the effectiveness of the six-party talks," said Yun Duk-min, a professor at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security (IFANS) of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Seoul.
"North Korea can resume brinkmanship by taking measures such as a second nuclear test in order to incapacitate the six-party talks and to make them transform into direct talks between North Korea and the US," said Yun, speaking at a forum held in Tokyo late last month.
Although Yun predicted that under the new US president direct dialogue would likely take a leading role in handling the North Korean nuclear problem, rather than the six-party talks, he stressed that the benefits of the six-party mechanism remained big. For one thing, he said, the talks could lead to the implementation of agreements by bringing together all the interests and forces of the participating nations.
"United Nations Security Council sanctions in relation to the North's Taepodong missile launches and nuclear testing became possible because there was the framework of the six-party talks," Yun said. "The talks also could develop into an important framework of cooperative security in the region."
Yun said the Stalinist nation had for the past decades always simultaneously chased two rabbits for its survival: nuclear armament and an improvement in its relationship with the United States.
Lee Young-hwa, an expert on Korea and an economics professor at Kansai University in Osaka, holds similar views. He told Asia Times Online that to engage in direct diplomacy with North Korea would make the six-party talks exist only in name. "The six-party talks will become a mere facade, but the US alone cannot share the burden of economic incentives, standing up to North Korea. It still needs to pursue multinationalism by consulting and working with other nations such as Australia. It does not have to [only] be the members of the six-party talks."
Obama welcomes Bush's decision
The tricky thing is that the George W Bush administration's removal of North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism in return for a disarmament deal on October 11 caused a twisted state between Democratic candidate Obama and Republican candidate John McCain.
Obama, who has severely and broadly criticized Bush's foreign policies, welcomed Bush's decision to delist Pyongyang by saying it was an "appropriate" step. He also said that the North's agreement to nuclear verification measures was a "modest step forward" to denuclearization. Meanwhile, McCain said before the announcement that he would oppose it unless the administration explained "exactly how this new verification agreement advances American interests and those of our allies", referring to the issue of the abduction of Japanese citizens by the North in the 1970s and 1980s.
This suggests Obama will follow the appeasement and engagement policy of Bush, who, eager for a rare foreign-policy success, rushed to make a deal with the Hermit Kingdom in the final stages of his presidency by significantly moderating his previous hardline stance and making a series of compromises.
The State Department said that in the agreement, inspectors would have access to all declared facilities at the North Korean nuclear facility in Yongbyon and other declared nuclear sites, and based on "mutual consent" to undeclared sites. But it will be significantly difficult for United Nations inspectors and American personnel to go to any undeclared sites and take material samples in the North, which strictly limits the movement of persons and material, especially foreigners.
The agreement omitted - or procrastinates in the best of terms - the issues of existing nuclear weapons; the controversial and problematic highly enriched uranium program; past proliferation activities involving nuclear material and missile technology to possibly Syria and Iran, among other nations.
Controllable nukes best for the US?
Kwon Ho-yon, a professor of political science at Hosei University in Tokyo, said Obama's new administration, which will favor direct communication with North Korea, may realistically approve the communist nation having about 50 kilograms of already extracted plutonium, enough to produce six to eight nuclear weapons - under given conditions Pyongyang's nuclear weapons are controllable within the region, not threatening US security.
"The US may think that with some nuclear weapons in its hands, North Korea will [still] need to turn to the US for its survival," Kwon said. "South Korea and Japan also turn to the US as they are scared of the North's nukes. After all, it turns out that everyone relies on the US. This would be the best situation for the US."
Both Yun, the professor at IFANS, and Lee at Kansai University pointed out that the US, Japan and South Korea relationship had failed to tackle the denuclearization of North Korea in a cooperative way, reflecting their conflicting ideas, intentions and policies.
Japan was very active in giving economic incentives to North Korea in the early 1990s, while the US was active in the mid-1990s and South Korea active since the late 1990s, for example, Yun said. This policy misstep by the three nations is responsible and, in large part, to blame for allowing Pyongyang's perpetual and unquenchable nuclear development.
Frank Jannuzi, who serves as the senior East Asia specialist for the minority staff of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Richard Holbrooke, a former US ambassador to the United Nations during the Bill Clinton administration, among others, are expected to join the Obama administration's policymaking on East Asia. They are known as advocates of engagement.
The true test of Obama's policies on Pyongyang will be to bring other countries together to engage Pyongyang. Otherwise, the nuclear crisis will be repeated.
Kosuke Takahashi, a former staff writer at the Asahi Shimbun, is a freelance correspondent based in Tokyo. He can be contacted at [email protected]