Our North Korean Dilemma

Oct 182006
Authors: Sue Ellen M. Charlton guest columnist

The new international reality introduced by North Korea’s October 8 nuclear test reinforces several well-known lessons in international politics. The first is the power of weak states. North Korea lacks the typical requisites of power and status (such as size or level of economic development) – except, of course, a large army, some missiles, and nuclear potential. That the North Korean government can hold the world hostage with its test is not the first time in history that we come to understand the weakness of “great powers” – however much firepower they possess. We have no viable military options, as Dr. Robert Lawrence pointed out in his Oct. 16 Collegian interview.

A second lesson is that even states geographically closest to North Korea have different foreign policy priorities. China, although unhappy with the test, views it in the context of its over-arching desire for stability on its borders and concerns regarding US and possibly Japanese military engagement in the region. As North Korea’s closest ally, China is the one state that can most realistically pressure North Korea in meaningful ways. Kim Jong-Il’s government is clearly betting that China will accommodate to the new status quo rather than “rock the boat.” Chinese caution over the scope and enforcement of United Nations sanctions confirms the accuracy of the North Korean gamble.

Meanwhile, the South Korean policy of constructive engagement with the North has been exposed for its weakness. Unlike China, however, South Korea’s competitive political system guarantees that its government’s policies are challenged by domestic opposition. Japan, in contrast to the other regional powers, has been unequivocal in its condemnation of the test and its call for stringent sanctions against North Korea. There are a number of historical and domestic reasons for the Japanese “hard line,” including the fact that Shinzo Abe, a known “nationalist,” recently became Japan’s prime minister. The dominance of the Liberal Democratic Party in Japanese politics assures that the voices calling for a larger and more powerful Japanese military presence in the world will be heard in the region (hence the Chinese concerns).

The third lesson of the current situation is that inconsistent foreign policies seldom accomplish their goals and may produce unintended consequences. A change in emphasis is normal when governments change administration, but the sharp shift from the Clinton administration policies of negotiations (“carrots”) and the shunning of the Bush administration (“sticks”) likely fed North Korean paranoia, particularly after the U.S. commitment to regime change in Iraq. Moreover, American “axis of evil” rhetoric might well have had the unintended consequence of creating common interests (North Korea – Iran) where none had existed. Similarly, the contradiction between the nominal U.S. commitment to nuclear non-proliferation and the current administration’s support for India’s (“peaceful”) nuclear ambitions raises questions about policy consistency.

Finally, the fourth lesson is that the line between the “peaceful” and “military” uses of nuclear power is thin, if not fictitious. This ambiguity explains the current concerns over Iran’s nuclear potential, but it should also help us understand fears elsewhere in the world that are largely ignored by Americans. One of these is the view, especially in South and West Asia, that the Bush administration’s support for India’s nuclear ambitions is hypocritical. Another of these fears is pre-eminent in East Asia, where memories of Japanese militarism in the first half of the twentieth century linger in the suspicion over any expansion of Japan’s military capability.

So what to do? The best options in a bad situation are to combine a U.S. unilateral guarantee of no military hostilities against North Korea with a revived emphasis on multilateral diplomacy. The administration has moved in this direction with its recent efforts at the UN and in sending Secretary of State Rice to Asia. Sanctions are typically not very workable, but they must be tried – all with an eye to the next proliferation case, Iran. Finally, we recognize that nuclear proliferation does not serve our national interests, but to achieve non-proliferation requires systematic multilateral attention – something clearly lacking in American foreign policy.

Sue Ellen M. Charlton is a professor in the department of political science. Her fields of expertise include comparative politics in Western Europe, Canada, and Asia, women and development policy, and international relations.

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