The North Korea Missile Standoff
The North Korea Missile Standoff
North Korea Plots a Course of “Heavy Agony” for 2022
North Korea Plots a Course of “Heavy Agony” for 2022
Op-Ed / Asia

The North Korea Missile Standoff

Now that the North has fired a series of missiles and could launch more in the coming days, we are faced with difficult choices. It is already clear that China and Russia will not support U.N. sanctions on North Korea for testing its missiles. South Korea is also not keen to squeeze Kim Jong-Il's regime too hard lest it have to pick up the pieces if the country collapsed, or worse, lashed out. No one outside of North Korea can be happy about the North's provocative act, but the missile firings have not been in breach of any international law, nor have they changed the security situation enough for these nations to take the tough action being urged by the Bush administration.

Washington could salvage the current situation and get five of those involved in the six-party talks on the same side if they give up their insistence on only talking to North Korea within that framework. The administration must recognise two key points: only direct talks with Pyongyang at a high level will work and the top priority must be ending North Korea's nuclear program. Other issues — missiles, human rights, chemical and biological weapons, troop reductions and crime — should all be tackled when the nuclear risk is gone.

The reluctance of three critical members of the talks lays bare the flaw of U.S. policy in North East Asia over the past six years. Washington has tried to harness the region into a united front against Kim Jong-Il but only Japan has signed up with any enthusiasm. The policy has tied the hands of the U.S., handed over key security decisions to the Chinese and allowed North Korea to provoke splits among a group have increasingly different views on how much risk the North presents. China, Russia and South Korea all see the disintegration of North Korea as more dangerous than the current standoff and they have good reason; if the government in Pyongyang collapsed nobody knows how the vast army would behave or how many people would flee the country. It could mean civil war among forces with nuclear, biological and chemical weapons to use or sell. South Korea would face a huge financial shock bailing out its bankrupt neighbor.

Although bilateral contact can now occur in the margins of the six party talks, this is not the same as top U.S. officials negotiating directly with their counterparts and ultimately with Kim Jong-Il himself, the only man in the country who can make a deal anyway.

Direct talks would also be less susceptible to the problem that killed off the last round of negotiations when one part of the U.S. government decided it was more important to punish Pyongyang for counterfeiting dollar bills than getting rid of a nuclear threat. That step undercut the progress made by skilled U.S. diplomats and illustrated that the Bush administration has no coherent policy on handling Pyongyang. High level direct talks would require that Washington develop a plan and stay with it.

It might stick in the throats of many to give Kim the attention and prestige he could gain by talking to the United States as equals but in the end it is a small price to pay. Kim wants security guarantees, a peace treaty formally ending the Korean War, a U.S. embassy and money — almost all of which will come from Japan and South Korea. The real costs to the U.S. will be low and the benefits significant. After the talks, the United States will be the most powerful country on earth and a lot safer. North Korea will be still be bleak, impoverished and a little less dangerous.

Not only would direct talks be more likely to succeed but they would open up other policy options if they failed, unlike the current situation in which the choices get more limited by the day. If Washington was seen to have put its heart into negotiations, any breakdown would be firmly blamed on Pyongyang and the three neighbours would be more likely to ratchet up the pressure. Only by talking directly can the United States get the unity it needs in North East Asia to deal with the threat from Pyongyang.

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