Three Hard Truths

After finally receiving $24 million in frozen assets, North Korea shut down its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon in July. The optimists cautiously celebrated the move as the first step toward the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and the eventual establishment of diplomatic relations between Washington and Pyongyang. The pessimists drolly pointed out that we’re back to where we were in 2002, except that now North Korea has a whole lot more nuclear material and possibly a bomb to boot.

This wrangling over the amount of water in the glass – half-full or half-empty – is largely beside the point. True, the Bush administration made a series of disastrous missteps and miscalculations on North Korea policy beginning in 2001. But it is also true that the administration reversed its approach in 2006 by agreeing to meet head-to-head with North Korea and provide it with incentives along the path toward nuclear disarmament rather than simply a package of goodies at the end of the road. The two countries are talking this month about establishing diplomatic ties. Meanwhile, the other working groups established by the February 13 agreement – on a peace and security mechanism for Northeast Asia, energy and economic cooperation, and normalization of Japan-North Korean relations – are also moving forward incrementally. The Six Party Talks that yielded this agreement, involving the United States, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, Russia, and China, finally seem to have acquired some diplomatic heft.

Washington has not been the only actor in this drama. China’s diplomatic efforts – and its fury over North Korea’s nuclear test in October 2006 – certainly helped unstick the six-party negotiations. Its support of UN sanctions against Pyongyang signaled that Beijing’s displeasure with its erstwhile ally was not merely rhetorical. And yet, nothing would have changed without the Bush administration’s about-face.

Perhaps the fourth volume of journalist Bob Woodward’s chronicle of the Bush administration will reveal the reasons for this reversal. Pyongyang’s nuclear test was certainly a clear sign that the administration’s hard-line policy wasn’t working. The debacle in Iraq – and foreign policy blunders elsewhere in the world – made it necessary for the administration to show some small success somewhere in the world. The stinging rebuke the voters delivered to the administration in the last U.S. elections may also have played a role. Finally, the declining influence of the neoconservatives in the administration has been pivotal. Former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, former deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz, and former UN representative John Bolton have been sent packing. Vice President Dick Cheney has lost his national security advisor Scooter Libby and, it seems, his veto power over the State Department on North Korea policy.

The push for immediate regime change in North Korea no longer packs much punch in Washington. Even human rights envoy Jay Lefkowitz is enthusiastic about the potential of cultural exchanges with North Korea. Hardliners may still attempt to undermine negotiations with North Korea, particularly if the United States gets closer to providing real economic assistance. For the time being, top U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill is keeping his head down and focusing on the tasks at hand.

But the question remains: besides a non-nuclear North Korea, what does Washington really want out of the current six-party negotiations? The apparent decline of the regime-change enthusiasts in Washington notwithstanding, the United States hasn’t changed its fundamental approach to Northeast Asia. This approach is based on three hard truths.

  • The United States fundamentally doesn’t care about North Korea.
  • The United States is deeply ambivalent about Korean reunification.
  • And the United States is allergic to a regional security system.

These are not hard truths for Americans. After all, the average U.S. citizen doesn’t pay attention to North Korea unless a legislator mischaracterizes Pyongyang’s missile capabilities as advanced enough to hit Kansas. Rather, these are hard truths for those in East Asia who hope for a true end to the Cold War in the region. The Bush administration has reversed its policy on negotiating with North Korea. In other respects, however, the administration maintains a bipartisan approach that prefers the current status quo. As the North and South Korean leaders prepare for a second inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang at the end of August, both would be well-advised to keep these hard truths in mind.

Who Cares about North Korea?

South Koreans have a natural connection to North Korea. Come what may, the two countries share a peninsula, thousands of years of history, and a notion of tanil minjok (one blood, one nation). China and Russia, by dint of proximity and varying degrees of alliance, can’t easily ignore North Korea. Even Japan, the sworn enemy of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), is connected by the politics of fear and a large ethnic Korean community, some of whom are officially North Korean citizens.

But Americans have no such connections to the DPRK. “Why do I need to care about North Korea?” presidential hopeful George W. Bush asked trusted Saudi advisor Prince Bandar in an emblematic conversation in Woodward’s recent book State of Denial. Bush was genuinely puzzled by the outsized influence the small country had on U.S. foreign policy. Nuclear weapons program aside, North Korea doesn’t possess any strategic resources beyond a few precious metals. It has a very small population – only 23 million people. So, unlike China, it hasn’t attracted much interest from the U.S. business community. Although it remains on the U.S. terrorism list, it hasn’t sponsored any terrorism since 1987, so it doesn’t merit attention on those grounds either.

Bandar, like many analysts, provided Bush with a stock answer for caring about North Korea: its much-vaunted conventional forces. There are “38,000 American troops right on the border,” Bandar replied. “One shot across the border and you lose half these people immediately.”

However, in the last few years, the United States has begun removing at least 12,000 U.S. troops from South Korea and has pulled back the 2nd U.S. infantry division from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Washington announced these changes in 2004, when the North Korean nuclear crisis was heating up not cooling down. If President Bush were to ask Prince Bandar the same question again, the Saudi would have to come up with a different answer. At a functional level, the U.S. military recognizes that North Korea possesses a Potemkin army – at least from the point of view of launching any cross-border invasions or posing any substantial threat to joint U.S.-South Korean forces. A longrunning food crisis, industrial collapse, and general economic stagnation have all reduced North Korea’s conventional power, one reason why the leadership has poured resources into developing a nuclear deterrent.

Advocates of human rights, proponents of Christian evangelism, and promoters of democracy expansion have all, at one time or another, put North Korea high on their agendas. And when the neoconservatives had more influence over U.S. policy, it seemed as though North Korea would merit attention for its abysmal human rights record, its failure to safeguard religious freedom, and its decidedly undemocratic system. But the Iraq War has exposed the flimsy nature of the administration’s efforts at democracy promotion. Nor is an abysmal human rights records a serious impediment to an improvement in relations (just ask Musharraf in Pakistan). And religious conservatives seem to be focusing more on Darfur these days than Pyongyang.

The U.S. government cares about primarily one thing: North Korea’s nuclear weapons. At some level, North Korea knows this. It is reluctant to give up its nuclear program less because of its deterrent capability, which is modest if it exists at all, than its capacity to draw the United States to the negotiating table.

One Cheer for Reunification

Reunification of the Korean peninsula will cost a lot of money. And some young people would like to dismiss North Korea as their parents’ unfinished business. But still, most Koreans support reunification. Since the United States is South Korea’s number one ally, Seoul might be forgiven for assuming that Washington, too, wants only one Korea. Americans fought a war over the Korean peninsula. Wouldn’t we also struggle to unify the peninsula peacefully?

Unfortunately for Koreans, the U.S. government is deeply ambivalent about reunification. The regime-change scenario initially embraced by the Bush administration entailed the collapse of the North and its absorption by the South. But South Korean leaders have explicitly rejected such a scenario – because of its implicit hostility toward the current North Korean government as well as the projected price tag. In its stead, the South Korean leadership supports slow-motion reunification that gives North Korea a chance to rebuild itself before entering a more substantive economic and political partnership.

This gradual reunification holds several risks for the United States. Washington worries that a reunified peninsula might embrace neutrality, severing the close relationship between South Korea and the United States. The negative U.S. response to South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun’s proposed “balancer” role for South Korea revealed this underlying anxiety.

Worse than neutrality, of course, would be a reunified Korea falling into the Chinese orbit. This reassertion of the past, namely the tributary relationship that Korea once had with China, would tip the region decisively away from the United States. The dominance of China in Korean trade relations – China is South Korea’s largest trade partner and provides the lion’s share of North Korea’s food and fuel imports – has already made the Korean peninsula economically dependent on its larger neighbor, and Chinese influence continues to grow.

A third scenario, let’s call it the Rose-of-Sharon scenario, involves an upsurge in Korean nationalism accompanying reunification and a decision to avoid neutrality and keep both China and the United States at arm’s length. In the wildly popular South Korean novel The Rose of Sharon Blooms Again, North and South Korea cooperate on building nuclear weapons to counter a threat from Japan. Fiction perhaps, but with Japan in the process of shrugging off its pacifist constitution, both North and South Korea are very concerned about the remilitarization of their former colonizer. The two Koreas may not cooperate on retaining or reacquiring a nuclear capability, but they may very well turn against the United States for working hand-in-glove with the Japanese on the acquisition of a “normal” military. A reunified peninsula could tilt toward a strong Korea-First policy.

Finally, reunification is not popular inside the Beltway – except in the ritual paeans given by Korea hands and State Department officials – because the current status quo appeals to the United States. South Korea is a key U.S. point of entry to East Asia, an important base of military operations for actions to the south, and so far a captive purchaser of U.S. military supplies. The United States, in other words, still cares about South Korea. A distinct and threatening North Korea also serves as a justification for missile defense in the region as well as the current panoply of offensive weaponry. Erase the division of Korea and the United States will suddenly seem like an ally without a purpose. NATO survived the end of the Cold War, but there was considerable buy-in from European powers. It is not so clear that a U.S.-South Korean military alliance would survive reunification (or even substantial steps toward that goal).

Asian CSCE? No Thank You!

Northeast Asia is one of the most militarized and least institutionalized regions of the world. In other words, there are a whole lot of weapons, plenty of outstanding conflicts, and no regional mechanisms for addressing these twin scourges. Periodically, leaders will propose that East Asia follow the model of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). 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.

China has proposed turning the Six Party Talks into a kind of CSCE, and indeed one of the working groups in the Six Party Talks focuses on a peace and security mechanism for East Asia. Influential U.S. figures such as James Laney, former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, and 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.

Of course, the Bush administration has routinely supported the notion of greater regional peace and stability. But is an Asian CSCE the preferred U.S. government means to that end?

Washington does not look at East Asia multilaterally, however much U.S. officials, like Colin Powell in 2004, 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 a certain extent with Japan and South Korea.

The United States doesn’t want to be squeezed out of Asia, even if the Bush administration’s recent actions seem to indicate otherwise – for instance, the cancellation of the U.S.-ASEAN summit and Rice’s decision not to attend the ASEAN Regional Forum. An Asian CSCE would create a multilateral network of greater equality, reducing what the Chinese like to call great power “hegemonism.” As the more vigorous multilateral actor in the region, China would benefit from a U.S. shift in emphasis from bilateralism to multilateralism.

If the Six Party Talks continue to move forward, so will discussions to set up a regional peace and security mechanism. But don’t expect it to have any real power. The United States is still too wedded to Cold War alliances and structures to go the extra step to embrace real multilateralism in the region.

What Washington Really Wants

Except for its nuclear program, the United States could care less about North Korea. It is deeply ambivalent about Korean reunification. And it is not enthusiastic about a regional peace mechanism that might compete with or undercut traditional bilateral alliances. It’s easy enough to determine what the United States doesn’t want in and around the Korean peninsula. Figuring out what the United States does want, however, is a little more complicated.

First, the United States’ major preoccupation in East Asia is with China and how to manage the strange relationship of congagement – engagement plus containment – that has marked the bilateral relationship since President George H.W. Bush changed his mind about the “butchers of Beijing” in the early 1990s. George W. Bush has proven even more pragmatic than his father. China has become an important counter-terrorism ally, a key partner for resolving the nuclear dispute with North Korea, and a linchpin of the American economy through its purchase of Treasury bonds and provider of goods for U.S. consumers. The Pentagon issues reports on the threat of China’s military modernization. The State Department worries about competition with China for influence in Africa and Latin America. But this is no Cold War rivalry. The bonds connecting the two countries are greater than anything that ever linked the United States and the Soviet Union, even during the glory days of détente.

Many Washington pundits gunning for positions in the next Democratic administration, whenever that might be, have accused the administration of fatally ignoring – or worse, abetting – China’s rise. Of course the Middle East has been the consuming focus of the administration. But enough residual anti-communism and Cold War geopoliticking has remained to push the administration to adopt several precautionary measures. It has upgraded its military relationship with Japan (and encouraged Japan to upgrade its own military). It has secured a strategic partnership with India through the nuclear deal. And it has boosted Australia to the status of a junior partner in strategic missile defense. This is the oldest game in geopolitics. China is trying to control the Eurasian landmass – particularly through its renewed partnerships with Russia and the Central Asian countries – and the United States is playing the role of maritime power surrounding China on all sides.

At the same time, the administration has also advanced the concept of strategic flexibility in military doctrine to deal with unexpected threats (terrorism) and to move troops and personnel quickly to a hot spot if necessary (for instance, from Korea to the Taiwan Straits). With anti-bases movements in all of its allies in the region, the United States also needs strategic flexibility to deal with the unpredictable consequences of democratic decisions, namely national parliaments passing resolutions that kick U.S. troops out of their countries.

Finally, the United States is trying to keep its hand in East Asia economically. This is the most important economic region of the world, and the Clinton administration created the Asia-Pacific Economic Community (APEC) to keep America anchored in the region. The Bush administration prefers the bilateral approach. China has become the largest trade partner for both Japan and South Korea. The U.S. response: a free-trade deal with South Korea.

North Korea is truly small potatoes in all of this. It doesn’t figure prominently in any of the U.S. strategic objectives, such as containing China or remaining engaged economically in the region. Its economy is a mere whisper, its military a mere shadow of its former self. The Six Party Talks are a testament to the political power of a nuclear weapon. North Korea’s nuclear program is the single criterion for membership at the negotiating table.

Different Beds, Different Dreams

The most important implication of North Korea’s relative insignificance in the U.S. strategic assessment of East Asia is the disabling asymmetry of intentions between the two primary negotiators. The United States is focused on a single goal: getting rid of its adversary’s nuclear program. North Korea, on the other hand, is interested in a relationship: diplomatic ties followed by expanded trade and technical exchange. The United States is simply not interested in a special relationship similar to what prevailed between Beijing and Washington after the opening of the 1970s. It is not just that North Korea is reluctant to give up what the United States wants it to forgo. It wants what the United States is very reluctant to provide. Pyongyang and Washington are in entirely different beds having entirely different dreams.

This asymmetry extends to U.S.-South Korean relations. The two countries have a very different view of North Korea. Seoul can’t help but have some kind of relationship with Pyongyang. The conservatives, who are leading in the polls for the December presidential elections, now largely embrace the same politics of engagement with the North as practiced by Kim Dae Jung and his successor Roh Moo Hyun. There is now consensus across the political spectrum over the main components, such as the Kaesong industrial zone, cultural and scientific exchanges, and gradual political rapprochement.

The DMZ that divides North and South Korea is still a significant division. It separates large armies, powerful artillery positions, different economic and political ideologies. But the upcoming inter-Korean summit will highlight all that has changed in bilateral relations over the last decade. The DMZ is no longer the fearsome obstacle that it once was, and the two Koreas are groping their way toward peace rather than stumbling toward war. The more difficult obstacle may well be that which divides the United States and the different parts of the Korean peninsula. The two Koreas are united by national interest and a sense of historical inevitability. The United States and North Korea have so little in common that a successful resolution of the Six Party Talks may prove ultimately elusive. As for the growing divide between the two allies, Washington and Seoul, it can only be hoped that the dissolution of the alliance, when it comes, will be amicable.

Washington certainly doesn’t want the negotiations with Pyongyang to fail, leaving North Korea with its nuclear program. Nor does Washington want its alliance with Seoul to fall apart. But the hard truths at the core of U.S. policy toward the region — a lack of interest in North Korea beyond its nukes, an ambivalence toward Korean reunification, a skepticism toward robust regional structures — are so at odds with Korean political sensibilities that they may well yield these results. As that great geopolitical thinker Mick Jagger once said, “You can’t always get what you want.”

John Feffer is co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org) at the Institute for Policy Studies (www.ips-dc.org).