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NE Asia alarmed by US's tougher NK stance
By Bruce Klingner

Continuing indications that the administration of US President George W Bush will pursue a firm and potentially more activist policy towards North Korea are exacerbating regional concerns, straining already frayed United States relations with South Korea, and spurring Seoul to seek a more independent role in efforts to resolve the North Korean nuclear impasse.

Bush's assured statement following the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il "will hear a common voice" from the other five participants at the next (as yet unscheduled) round of six-way talks masked obvious unease by Korea's neighbors with the US approach. Despite US assertions that northeast Asian nations agreed on the need for North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons programs, Bush's counterparts concurrently emphasized the need for US restraint and a measured diplomatic approach.

Secretary of State Colin Powell has called for the resumption of negotiations in early 2005, underscoring that Washington did not attach any "preconditions" to its participation. The US reopened "the New York channel" by sending Joseph DeTrani, the special envoy for North Korean negotiations, to meet with Pyongyang's United Nations diplomats and subsequently dispatching him to the region for follow-on discussions with China, South Korea, and Japan.

Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and national security advisor-designate Stephen Hadley issued a mixed message to a visiting South Korean bipartisan parliamentary delegation by assuring them that the US neither planned to attack, nor sought regime change in North Korea while, at the same time, warning that the US might take the issue to the United Nations Security Council. Hadley added that while President Bush believed the six-way talks were the best means to resolve the nuclear issue, "managed pressure" was necessary to bring closure.

North Korea willing to wait ... for now
Pyongyang has refused to reengage Washington until the Bush administration provides tangible signs of having dropped its "hostile" policy. A North Korean spokesman reiterated after the New York meetings that it would await announcements over the final disposition of Bush's second-term national security team prior to agreeing to attend another round of talks. Pyongyang is likely seeking indications of the extent to which the US will press the regime, most notably whether secretary of of state-designate Condoleezza Rice elevates Undersecretary of State John Bolton, seen as one of the administration's strongest advocates of a hard line policy, to deputy secretary of state.

Pyongyang will be encouraged by recent South Korean and Chinese actions that serve to constrain Washington's efforts to increase international pressure on the recalcitrant regime. As a result, Kim Jong-il will continue to eschew escalating tensions in the near-term, preferring to allow his neighbors to undermine US efforts. Pyongyang's patience is not limitless, however, and if the leadership perceives a further hardening of US policy or feels too long ignored, it may choose to implement an escalatory policy.

Regional concerns
Asian nations perceive that Bush is more likely to increase pressure on North Korea by building an international consensus for stronger action. The recently passed US North Korean Human Rights Act provides another vehicle with which to coerce Pyongyang and, in conjunction with the Proliferation Security Initiative and UN nuclear watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) efforts to have the UN Security Council address the North's nuclear violations, comprise a three-pronged US policy to garner greater recognition of the danger Pyongyang poses. If these efforts are unsuccessful, they would then form the legal basis to justify harsher action, whether through sanctions or military action.

The latest diplomatic maneuvering between Washington and Pyongyang takes place in the context of recent comments from IAEA head Mohammed ElBaradei that is he "certain" that North Korea has reprocessed its spent nuclear fuel into an amount of weapons-grade plutonium sufficient to produce four to six weapons. Northeast Asian nations will be hesitant if not hostile to US efforts to build an international coalition against North Korea, seeing such efforts as a reprise of Washington's efforts prior to its invasion of Iraq. South Korea and its neighbors will shy from applying such a policy to North Korea, given the perceived deteriorating security situation in Iraq, increased skepticism over US intelligence capabilities following the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and lingering resentment over Washington's unilateral preemptive policy.

Faced with the prospect of continued impasse as Pyongyang increases its arsenal, grudging formal acceptance of a nuclear-armed North Korea, or escalating tensions, South Korea and China will likely seek to change the existing paradigm through their own unilateral efforts.

Seoul - taking the lead
South Korea has been in an increasingly awkward position as the Bush administration seeks to ratchet-up pressure. President Roh Moo-hyun has tried to balance Seoul's efforts to build trust with North Korea with efforts not to alienate conservative elements of the South's populace - as well as Washington. Endorsing the US policy would undermine Seoul's engagement policy by chilling dialogue with Pyongyang while offering little if any benefit to Seoul. The inherent contradictions of seeking to be on both sides of the fence have exacerbated existing tensions with Washington while not generating concessions from Pyongyang.

President Roh Moo-hyun's speech to a Los Angeles-based think tank served as a diplomatic shot across the bow by rebuking the Bush administration over its approach to the north and urging the US to engage diplomatically with North Korea as the best means to resolving the nuclear impasse. Roh sought to distance himself from Washington's policy by announcing "the use of force as a negotiation strategy should be restricted [and] a blockade against North Korea would be undesirable too, as it would only drag out uncertainties and risks." Pointedly emphasizing that "I can't ask Koreans to risk a war again," Roh stated that "a hard-line policy means too much for the Korean Peninsula."

Roh's statement that Pyongyang's efforts to acquire nuclear weapons and missiles was to "deter threats from the outside" was harshly criticized by South Korean conservatives who accused the president of serving as an apologist for the North and risking further alienation of the United States. Defense Minister Yoon Kwang-ung's subsequent suggestion that references to North Korea as Seoul's "primary enemy" would be erased in the next defense ministry white paper to be published in January was widely perceived as another indicator of South Korea seeking to distance itself from the US approach to Pyongyang.

Roh's European tour
The South Korean president used meetings with European counterparts to garner support for a peaceful resolution to the nuclear issue and espouse the need to provide security assurances and economic aid to Pyongyang so that it would continue its nascent efforts at economic reform. He sought to stake out a "leading role" for South Korea and emphasized that his government "will do its best ... to reflect the thoughts and circumstances of the Korean people ... even if [we] have to turn red in the face with somebody [the clear inference being the US], we have no choice but to do so."

The South Korean populace has become increasingly distrustful of the US, as reflected in several surveys that identify Washington as a greater threat than Pyongyang to peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula. Especially striking was a November poll which revealed 20% of those surveyed advocated that South Korea should join with North Korea in the event of a US-North Korean armed conflict, while 49% chose the US and 30% were unsure.

Roh's free-wheeling diplomacy may resurrect domestic debate over the direction of South Korea's foreign policy and the degree of collaboration with Washington, reminiscent of discussion following then-foreign minister Yoon Young-kwan's unexpected dismissal in January. Although Yoon's departure was couched as being the result of "insubordination toward the president". a Blue House official said the foreign minister had been "unable to grow beyond the dependent foreign policy of the past" and had not adequately followed the "new independent foreign policy" of President Roh.

China wary of UN action
Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing's announcement that Beijing would not support Washington in bringing Iran's nuclear issue before the UN Security Council may reflect a calculated Chinese decision to impede US attempts to increase international pressure on Tehran - and by inference, North Korea. Li told reporters that Security Council involvement "would only make the issue more complicated and difficult to work out", explaining that China feels the issue can be handled within the framework of the IAEA. China's signal against US-led action against Iran reflects Beijing's growing strategic relationship with Iran, based largely on new agreements to satisfy the Middle Kingdom's growing oil appetite and continue the country's critical economic growth. The Chinese leadership has repeatedly stated that maintaining peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula was a strategic national interest, making it unlikely that Beijing would support UN action against Pyongyang.

Ramifications for US policy
As a result of parallel South Korean and Chinese efforts, the international community will act as a sea anchor to the Bush administration's pursuit of a hard line policy against North Korea. Increasingly isolated, the US will be faced with the choice of attempting to gain greater acceptance of its strategy or proceeding unilaterally. Washington will, of course, initially attempt the former but, as post-election administration statements indicate, is willing to pursue the latter.

Bruce Klingner is director of analysis for Intellibridge Corp in Washington, DC. His areas of expertise are strategic national security, political and military affairs in China, Northeast Asia, Korea and Japan. He can be reached at

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Dec 10, 2004
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