The Paradox of East Asian Peace

At the center of East Asia lies the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on the Korean peninsula. The DMZ has been called the most dangerous place on earth. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers face one another across this divide. And yet, the DMZ is also the lifeline between North and South Korea. It connects the two countries by way of the Kaesong Industrial Complex. Electricity, transportation, and communications lines connect the two sides across this dangerous rift. Perhaps most paradoxically, the DMZ itself is a quiet, largely undisturbed zone that is home to perhaps the greatest biological diversity on the peninsula. Unification is, of course, a life-and-death issue for Koreans. It is therefore fitting that the DMZ is a life-and-death zone.

A similar paradox lies at the center of the regional peace and security structure that the six countries negotiating the nuclear impasse with North Korea are considering for Northeast Asia. The proposal, which is still very much at the idea stage, occupies the attention of one of the five working groups in the Six Party talks. Will the two Koreas, Japan, China, Russia, and the United States create a kind of organization for security and cooperation in Asia? There are many reasons why such a peace regime is an impossibility. Neither the United States nor North Korea, for different but related reasons, is keen about such a system (despite much rhetoric to the contrary). At the same time, such a peace regime is inevitable. South Korea, China, and Russia, again for different but related reasons, support this outcome.

The easy solution to this seeming paradox is to distinguish between short-term and long-term perspectives. Given the different motivations and interests of the negotiating parties in the Six-Party Talks, a regional security system is nearly impossible in the short term. Over the long term, however, the logic of negotiations and the compelling economic and geopolitical interests of the different parties make a regional stability system inevitable.

Shifting the optic is useful but does not offer a sufficient resolution to the paradox of impossibility/inevitability. We are left in the dark as to when short-term considerations segue into long-term realities. After all, the impossibility of a peace regime has been with us for over nearly six decades, which is quite a long time. And the inevitability of a peace regime could, with the implementation of the working groups of the Six Party Talks, be borne out as early as next year, which is quite short term.

To understand which will triumph–impossibility or inevitability–we must look at a different set of criteria. Ultimately, after an assessment of the different push-pull factors, the discussion will zero in on the critical role played by Japan. The country in the region with the worst record on peace and security in the 20th century may well play the decisive role in establishing a regional peace and security order in the 21st century. If the inevitable indeed happens, it still may turn out to be impossible, and this will be the final paradox. If all the stars align and the six countries establish a peace and security mechanism for Northeast Asia, their continued high levels of military spending will make such a mechanism largely ineffectual.

An Impossible Dream

Before any peace agreement can replace the current armistice on the Korean peninsula, before any peace regime can be constructed on the foundation of a peninsular peace agreement, North Korea must give up its nuclear weapons. The Bush administration has predicated any substantive steps toward a peace regime on complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear program. Let’s assume for the moment that this is a non-negotiable demand. Although the Bush administration reversed other demands–on bilateral discussions and the sequencing of incentives–North Korea’s nuclear disarmament is the ultimate goal of the administration. It’s the primary factor that distinguishes the agreement that the Bush administration is aiming for in the Six Party Talks from the much-maligned (by Republicans) Agreed Framework of 1994.

North Korea has agreed in principle to give up its nuclear weapons program. But there are very good reasons to believe that it will not do so, at least not under the current circumstances. The nuclear weapons program has functioned largely as a bargaining chip to trade with the United States and other major powers for a big package of economic and security measures. But the nuclear program has served other purposes, too.

Most importantly, North Korea’s nuclear program has two chief military purposes. It acts as a deterrent against those who would use military force to trigger regime change in Pyongyang (a la Afghanistan and Iraq). It also compensates for a conventional force posture that has suffered from a decade of food shortages, nearly two decades of post-Cold War isolation, and approximately three decades of economic decline. Such a nuclear insurance policy cannot be easily bought out. Take away North Korea’s nuclear program and it is reduced to the status of a heavily guarded but essentially vulnerable garrison state.

As such, Pyongyang has demanded security guarantees before it gives up its deterrent. But will North Korea truly throw down its weapon on the force of a promise from its East Asian neighbors and the United States? A regional peace and security system can in theory provide an institutional guarantee that North Korea won’t be attacked. But such a system, while it is being constructed, is like a house without a roof and without proper walls. Will anyone give up the security of a bunker, no matter how ugly and uncomfortable, to take shelter in such a flimsy structure? Because of its essential vulnerability–the tyranny of the weak–North Korea craves regional stability in the abstract but clings to its nuclear protection in the here and now.

There are other reasons why North Korea is leery of such regional structures. For instance, North Korea is worried about China. While anti-Japanese sentiment formed the backbone of the original state, the country’s ruling philosophy of juche (self-reliance)was formed as a counterpoint to the traditional sadae (tributary or, more colloquially, flunky) relationship with China during the Sinocentric period. North Korea’s ambivalence toward China is measured in many ways–the lack of mention (much less gratitude) for China’s assistance during the Korean War, the refusal to listen to Chinese experts on economic reform, the explosion of a nuclear device in defiance of Chinese warnings. Most recently, at the North-South summit, Kim Jong Il insisted on the formulation of “three or four” participants in a conference to negotiate a peace treaty to replace an armistice, a clear reference to the possibility of cutting China out of the process. China, of course, exerts influence over North Korea–less than Washington believes, more than North Korea wants. Any significant increase in Chinese influence through a regional structure would be intolerable to Pyongyang. North Korea would be very wary of any regional structure that, at a time when the United States remains fixated on the Middle East, would allow China to build a neo-tributary regime in the region.

The other chief obstacle to a regional peace and security order in Northeast Asia is the United States. Washington does not look at East Asia multilaterally, however much U.S. officials, like Colin Powell in a 2004 article in Foreign Affairs, have tried to argue otherwise. The United States is anchored in the region through bilateral alliances–with Japan, South Korea, and to a certain extent Taiwan. This bilateralism allows the United States, much the larger partner in all these cases, to control the security equation more easily. Washington can also do what it often accuses Pyongyang of: playing one country off another, as it has done to some degree with Japan and South Korea. These bilateral alliances are perfectly suited to the U.S. new approach of strategic flexibility: that is, rapid response with new technologies to crises throughout the region. Strategic flexibility requires lightening-fast decisions concluded at the highest level with one or two governments, not the deliberative consultations of multilateral bodies.

Nevertheless, there is support across the political spectrum in the United States for some kind of regional security structure. Influential U.S. figures such political scientist Francis Fukuyama have backed a permanent forum for addressing security issues in the region. In his new book Failed Diplomacy, former Bush administration point person on North Korea, Charles Pritchard, devotes an entire chapter to enumerating what such a forum would look like. In a recent issue of Foreign Affairs, former Bush administration official Victor Cha and former U.S. ambassador to South Korea James Laney disagree about virtually everything related to U.S. policy toward East Asia–except that they both support a peace forum for the region.

Such agreement would break down, however, when discussing the form that a regional security structure would take. Several Asia-Pacific leaders, from Kim Dae Jung to Gareth Evans, and many scholars as well have proposed turning the Six Party Talks into a kind of CSCE, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. This innovation of the 1970s brought together the countries of Eastern and Western Europe, along with the Soviet Union and the United States, to discuss security, trade and scientific exchanges, and human rights across the Cold War divide. The model is particularly applicable to Northeast Asia, for it offers a way to pursue on parallel tracks a number of sensitive issues in a deeply divided region.

For their different reasons, neither the United States nor North Korea will be enthusiastic about an Asian CSCE. The United States looked askance at the original CSCE and voted down funding that would have turned its successor, the OSCE, into a viable alternative to NATO. Similarly, Washington will likely maneuver to weaken any such multilateral structure so that it doesn’t threaten existing bilateral alliances, hamper strategic flexibility, or reduce what the Chinese like to call great power “hegemonism,” namely the preponderant U.S. military presence in the region.

North Korea, meanwhile, will be reluctant to participate in a structure that is associated in any way with the Helsinki model that helped undermine the communist governments in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. The introduction of human rights issues alongside the security discussions, even if held in parallel rather than linked, will challenge North Korea’s conception of sovereignty.

In other words, the United States will oppose a regional model strong enough to challenge its authority in the region and North Korea will oppose a regional model strong enough to challenge its authority within its own borders. Even if a compromise can be reached on establishing a regional peace mechanism, the interests of the strongest and the weakest will dictate that such a mechanism remains a talking shop rather than a body with real decision-making capabilities. While not impossible, such a structure would be largely irrelevant, much weaker than the ASEAN Regional Forum or the Shanghai Cooperation Organization or even the original CSCE.

An Inevitable Reality

North Korea is hard-pressed to give up its nukes. The United States is reluctant to give up its hegemonic position. These are the dilemmas posed by the strongest and the weakest powers among the six countries in the negotiations. Not surprisingly, the middle powers are the ones most supportive of a regional peace and security mechanism.

For China, Russia, and South Korea, the prime directive is to avoid war and the potentially devastating consequences of regime collapse in North Korea. The current state of a cold peace is unstable, given the military standoff, the financial squeeze on North Korea, the risks of proliferation, the lack of official diplomatic channels, and so on. All three countries support a sequence of steps that can bring greater stability: closer inter-Korean ties, the diplomatic recognition of North Korea by the United States and Japan, a peace treaty to replace the armistice, arms control measures, and so on. A regional security structure could advance these goals and, indeed, could serve as the mechanism within which at least some of these discussions could take place.

Each of these three countries also has very specific reasons for supporting such a regional peace structure.

Over the last decade, China has performed a 180-degree turn in its foreign policy. At one point, like the United States, it preferred to use its relative strength to control partners through bilateral relationships. But since the mid-1990s, China has become a big booster of multilateralism. Its critical support of the current Six Party Talks contrasts sharply with its hands-off attitude during the previous nuclear crisis of the early 1990s. It hasn’t merely prodded North Korea to the table and worked closely with the United States in reaching pre-agreement consensus positions. It has also specifically pushed the idea of turning the talks into a more permanent arrangement for the resolution of regional security problems.

China’s rationale is essentially economic. It desires a stable and predictable regional environment within which its economy can continue to grow at a rapid clip. Without such economic growth, the Chinese leadership fears for its own position. In this sense, the Chinese Communist Party links regional peace and stability to domestic peace and stability. Moreover a regional order can achieve two useful outcomes for China with respect to the weakest and the strongest regional players. Such a system could anchor North Korea in a way to reduce its unpredictability. And the United States could simultaneously be kept engaged in the region–as a hedge against Japan–and its hegemonic power dissipated through regional institutions.

Russia’s support for regional security is similarly economic in nature. The future viability of the Russian Far East depends on channeling the enormous energy and resource wealth of that section of the former Soviet Union into the economies of China, South Korea, and Japan. A regional security order is not an absolute necessity for the construction of, say, oil and natural gas pipelines. But investments into the region’s infrastructure would be more forthcoming if investors were less concerned about the possibility of a war involving North Korea. Russia would like to play a balancer role in the security discussions in Northeast Asia. As it becomes a more important economic player in the region, it might be able to achieve this goal. But so far it occupies a modest position in the discussions.

The greatest booster for a regional security mechanism is South Korea. Unification is an intensely national (and nationalist) project. But it requires international support. South Korea has attempted to gain this support in various ways, even to the point of trying to insert a clause in the KORUS free trade agreement (related to the products of Kaesong entering virtually tariff-free into the United States). In the same way that proponents of German unification anchored their project in the larger European Union and OSCE projects, South Korea is thinking about regional mechanisms that can allay the suspicions of outsiders (toward the intentions of a united Korea) and help encourage the narrowing of differences between north and south.

South Korea, too, has an economic rationale. Unification is largely driven at the moment by economic considerations. North Korea needs considerable capital investment and has decided to hold its nose and approach the capitalist world to obtain it. The South Korean government, meanwhile, sees unification as its comparative advantage, by way of the North’s relatively cheap workforce, in the highly competitive economic zone of Northeast Asia. South Korea as regional hub depends on Kaesong and other similar zones (Haeju, Siniuju). None of this can proceed at the levels imagined by the architects of economic integration–1,500 South Korean firms employing 350,000 North Korean workers at Kaesong by 2012–unless both the United States and North Korea move toward greater reconciliation. And while normalized U.S.-North Korean relations is a key part of such a move, a regional security structure could help build institutional relationships that might translate at some point into a regional economic structure.

The skeptics of a regional security system largely focus on military factors. The United States worries about North Korea’s nuclear weapons; North Korea worries about its own deterrent capacities. The proponents of a regional security system largely focus on economic factors: the importance of a stable region to encourage economic growth and the role that economic integration can play in reducing the risks of military conflict.

Japan as Decider

The wild card in all of this is Japan. For several reasons Japan is skeptical of a regional security order. But there are equally good reasons why it might ultimately support such a plan.

Japan, like the United States, has found the enemy image of North Korea quite useful. The reorientation of Japanese military and foreign policy has required a threat. While China serves this function to a certain degree, it retains a positive image for much of the Japanese population. Not so for North Korea, which is viewed as the more “clear and present danger,” with the abduction issue as the thin edge of the wedge.

Japanese public support for constitutional changes and a “normal” military is soft. Only 30% support changing Article 9, the key clause restricting Japan to defensive operations. Even fewer support the notion of creating an actual offensive army. The main opposition party has done well at the polls by challenging the ruling party’s headlong rush toward a more offensive military and foreign policy. Given this soft support from the public, hardliners in the Liberal Democratic Party have relied on North Korea to help push through the changes. When North Korea launched the Taepodong rocket over Japan in 1998, the then-Japanese prime minister joked about sending Kim Jong Il a birthday present for providing the rationale to push through what might have otherwise been unpopular military reforms.

This policy on North Korea has positioned Japan to the right of the United States during the Six Party Talks. Tokyo has been the most skeptical participant in the discussions and has voiced considerable concern that Washington will remove North Korea from various sanction lists (particularly the “terrorism list”). Japan has been the most vocal regional backer of the Proliferation Security Initiative, a missile defense system, and UN sanctions against North Korea. Even as North Korea dismantles its Yongbyon facilities and prepares a list of its nuclear programs, the influential Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun published a multi-part series on the growing North Korean nuclear threat.

Nevertheless, Japan too can see a value in a regional peace and security mechanism. Just as South Korea wants to anchor unification in a regional process to allay outside anxieties, Japan recognizes that concerned neighbors will accept its “normal” military policy more readily within certain limits. A regional security order can provide such limits. At the same time, Japan can also benefit a great deal economically from a radical drawing down of tensions. The Japanese construction industry eagerly eyes the profits to be gained from the capital that could flow from Tokyo to Pyongyang as a result of any future normalization agreement.

As such, Japan plays a pivotal role in determining whether a regional peace and security order can become a short-term inevitability or whether it will remain a long-term impossibility. Tokyo can decide to emphasize military threat and undermine steps toward the construction of a regional security system. Or it can focus on the economic benefits that would accrue in the case of a regional détente.

Current Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda has promised a “dialogue-oriented” approach to diplomacy, which would be more conducive to a regional peace structure than the policies of his predecessor Shinzo Abe. At the same time, the Fukuda government has continued to threaten a rupture with the United States if the latter removes North Korea from the terrorism list. And the current defense minister is Shigeru Ishiba, who once threatened to attack North Korea preemptively. The head of the Democratic Party, Ichiro Ozawa, has been similarly ambiguous about his position. Back in 2002, he boasted of Japan’s ability to produce nuclear weapons and win any war it decided to seriously wage. Yet Ozawa has emerged as a chief critic of the Koizumi-Abe plans to stretch the Japanese constitution to allow various military activities, mostly in support of U.S. operations elsewhere in the world. The Japanese ruling elite contains different tendencies. Indeed, each Japanese politician seems to contain both a hawk and a dove side. The country clearly could go either way.

Japan must make a decision not just about North Korea but about itself and the role it wants to play in East Asia. So far, Japan has resisted undertaking the kind of historical truth-telling and regional reconciliation that Germany more-or-less embraced in the Cold War period and that enabled European integration and then German reunification to proceed. Japan can play a similar role in East Asia, but this will likely require a regime change in Tokyo–not just a change in government but a fundamental change in perspective toward history and Japan’s neighbors.

So, we confront another paradox. The country that most wants to move rapidly from defense to offense holds the key to whether the region as a whole moves slowly away from offense and toward defense. The Japanese constitution has put partial restraints on the Japanese military for more than half a century. It would be a fitting legacy if Japan would help regionalize such principles in a peace and security structure in Northeast Asia.

A Final Paradox

Even if North Korea fully commits to complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of its nuclear program and the United States endorses a robust multilateral structure in Northeast Asia, the chief driving force of militarism in the region will remain intact: military spending. Between 2002 and 2007, the military budgets of five of the six countries in the Six-Party Talks increased by 50% or more. U.S. spending, which continues to represent nearly half of all global military expenditures, has risen to its largest levels since World War II. South Korea has increased spending from $17 billion to $26 billion, more to placate conservatives leery of the engagement policy with North Korea than to meet any significant threat from the North. Russia, awash in energy revenues, hopes to regain its lost global status by building and selling weapons like a superpower. China would like to have a military that is the match of its world-class economy. North Korea, under the military-first doctrine, increased military spending by 50% even during a continued period of economic austerity. Only Japan has seen no significant increase in defense spending, though quite a few politicians advocate doing away with the informal ceiling on military expenditures of 1% of GDP and the Bush administration has tried to push Japan in this direction.

The countries in the Six Party Talks are responsible for some of the fastest increasing military budgets in the world (the United States, China, Russia). And together they account for over 60% of world military expenditures.

In addition to these increases in military spending, the United States and Russia are the world’s largest military exporters and China is in the top ten. China and South Korea are among the top ten arms importing nations. Japan and the United States are working together on a missile defense program. And, if North Korea indeed gives up its nuclear program, it will come under internal pressure to beef up its conventional forces.

A regional peace and security mechanism in Asia, if it doesn’t address this central fact of an arms race among the participants in the Six-Party Talks, will be toothless. More critically, since the six countries represent the lion’s share of world military spending and arms exports, a significant restraint on Pacific militarism will have global implications. The solution to the global arms race lies in the hands of countries involved in the Six Party Talks–or, rather, the citizens of those countries who press for a freeze and then substantial cuts in military spending. If the world’s most profligate military spenders commit to real demilitarization–and not just a restraint on North Korea’s nuclear program–then they will resolve the final security paradox of Northeast Asia.

By so doing, they will bury the Cold War once and for all.

John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus.