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Coping with Pyongyang: Regional Diplomacy Still Vital

Author: Sheila A. Smith, Senior Fellow for Japan Studies
June 10, 2009

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Since North Korea first tested a nuclear weapon in October 2006, the United States has worked closely with Japan, South Korea, China, and Russia to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions. This six-party framework was designed to address the regional desire for peace and stability on the Korean peninsula. For Washington, the core effort was negotiations with Pyongyang on a plan for denuclearization that included dismantling plutonium production facilities and a full declaration of its nuclear program. The talks have also addressed points of tension between North Korea and its Northeast Asia neighbors: the dire energy and food needs of North Korea; the unresolved fate of Japanese and South Korean citizens abducted by the North; and the state of war that continues to characterize relations on and around the Korean Peninsula.

Talks with Pyongyang seem to have brought few results thus far, and North Korea now seems dedicated to acquiring nuclear status rather than seeking to negotiate an end to its nuclear program. The future of the Six-Party Talks is in question. Yet regional negotiations, involving all or most of the six-party participants, have never been more important to contain the crisis and regain a diplomatic footing with the North.

In recent weeks, North Korea has conducted a long range missile test (April 5) and a second nuclear test (May 25), as well as a series of short-range missile launches. Pyongyang announced it will no longer participate in regional negotiations, and no longer adheres to the 1953 Armistice Agreement that has kept the peace on the Korean peninsula. It has defied UN Security Council Resolution 1718, which was put in place after the first nuclear test in 2006, and it has abandoned commitments made to its neighbors to dismantle the Yongbyon plutonium reprocessing facility and declare the full extent of its nuclear program. North Korea may not yet be finished asserting its military might as preparations for another Taepodong missile test appear underway. To complicate a difficult standoff even further, two U.S. citizens have been sentenced by North Korean authorities to twelve years in a labor camp for allegedly crossing the border into North Korea from China.

[T]he countries of Northeast Asia must consider not only the potential for a return to the six-party process, but must also include parallel talks on how the region will work together to contain the North should negotiations prove impossible.

From Six-Party to Five-Party Focus

The United States has strongly supported a regional effort to negotiate with Pyongyang, and the Obama administration continues to state that a negotiated solution remains its goal. The effort to navigate this most recent crisis includes drafting a new United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution, expanding on the sanctions outlined in 1718. The two key issues will be how to limit the North Korean ability to finance its nuclear and missile development programs, and the effort to contain the proliferation of fissile materials and nuclear weapons-related technologies emanating from the North.

Managing this crisis will depend on navigating the complex regional relations of Northeast Asia region. It is imperative that China support the UNSC efforts to diminish North Korea's ability to develop and use these weapons systems. South Korea, too, must buy into the notion of punishing the North, in the face of growing threats from Pyongyang that violence might ensue if Seoul acts in concert with the United States or other regional powers to restrict North Korean activities. Having imposed unilateral restrictions on foreign exchange transactions and barter trade years ago, Japan has little leverage left with the North. But all three of these countries remain vulnerable to an unpredictable Pyongyang that threatens to lash out when its interests are ignored or thwarted.

Northeast Asian Crisis Management

All of the countries have looked to Washington for guidance in their effort to negotiate with Pyongyang. With a central role in hosting the talks, and in mediating between Washington and Pyongyang, Beijing perhaps felt most positive about the six-party experiment with regional multilateralism. For Tokyo, Washington's closest ally in Asia, the experience was much less positive. Many in Japan felt that the two countries did not share a common sense of how to resolve the issue. Direct talks between U.S. and North Korean diplomats, aimed at breaking the impasse in the six-party denuclearization effort, were seen as weakening the United States' commitment to Japan's security. Trust between Washington and Tokyo faltered in the later years of the Bush administration as the two countries' governments differed on whether Washington should delist North Korea from its state sponsors of terrorism list. A similar discomfort is evident in South Korea. As Pyongyang ratcheted up its demonstration of military capability to a nuclear test, the people of South Korea began to wonder if their own defense preparations were adequate to cope with a nuclear, and still belligerent, regime in Pyongyang.

Today, the countries of Northeast Asia must consider not only the potential for a return to the six-party process, but must also include parallel talks on how the region will work together to contain the North should negotiations prove impossible. The possibility of a regional arms race is real, yet a nuclear arms race won't be imminent if Washington takes the initiative to clarify and communicate its visible engagement with defense planners in both Japan and South Korea. Both militaries today are far more advanced and far more willing to demonstrate their own preferences should a conflict scenario emerge in Northeast Asia. While U.S. forces remain indispensable to the defense of both nations, new ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems make a conflict scenario somewhat different than before. BMD cooperation between Japan and the United States, with support from South Korea, was put into service this April for the first time in response to a North Korean intermediate range missile test. This was the first time the Japanese had capabilities worth demonstrating, and they did not hesitate to make it clear they were ready to use force.

Likewise, there is growing concern about a more disturbing possibility. The twice-demonstrated nuclear capability of North Korea raises new issues about the worst-case-scenario: protracted internal instability or the collapse of the North Korean regime. Speculation abounds about the links between the current succession process in the North and this recent outbreak of missile and nuclear activities. Kim Jong-Il's health has prompted the designation of a successor, and this suggests the possibility of an internal struggle. A leadership transition could feed further military provocations as a demonstration of power.

South Korea, of course, would bear the brunt of any clash on the peninsula, and Washington would support Seoul forcefully should this scenario prevail. It is less clear, however, how the United States and other countries in the region--namely China--would cope with the possibility of the North's nuclear facilities falling into unknown hands. The complexity of planning for a crisis response has now entered into the regional agenda, yet who should secure these nuclear facilities and how a collective response might be orchestrated remain difficult questions to answer.

The complexity of planning for a crisis response has now entered into the regional agenda, yet who should secure these nuclear facilities and how a collective response might be orchestrated remain difficult questions to answer.

A New Regional Agenda

Peace and stability in Northeast Asia still rest on the ability of Japan, South Korea, China, and the United States to make correct and careful assessments of each other's military judgments. The way forward in containing the crisis should include the following:

-          Washington should focus on the coalition of the remaining five parties in a discussion of how to respond collectively to the critical task of coping with a possible escalation of tensions on the Peninsula or of an internally generated collapse of the current regime. It is the nations that live in closest proximity to Pyongyang that will have to find a way to bring this deeply isolated society into the rest of the world.

-          The Obama administration will need to balance the effort to persuade North Korea to return to the table with a reinforcement of the U.S. defense commitment to its allies.

-          UN Security Council sanctions must consist of visible and meaningful restrictions on the ability of the North Korean regime to earn or to garner foreign exchange earnings for (or from) its missile and nuclear programs.

-          The Security Council must include a transparency regime for the implementation of agreed-upon sanctions to encourage confidence and trust among the key Northeast Asian powers.

The outcome of this experiment in regional cooperation carries profound implications for Northeast Asia and whether it can transform itself from a region of deep national antagonisms and tensions into a community with shared security interests. The jury is still out on whether or not the Six-Party Talks should be declared over. But alongside the United Nations' effort to sanction North Korea's nuclear and missile tests, this regional partnership between the United States and the countries of Northeast Asia remains the best vehicle for addressing the comprehensive agenda of building stable relationships on and around the Korean peninsula. We cannot let its fate be decided in Pyongyang. It is up to Washington and the other four powers to demonstrate their common interests in managing this dangerous neighbor.

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