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US should recognize North Korea
By Peter R Moody, Jr

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

America's approach to nuclear proliferation in North Korea is faulted for alienating its South Korean ally. Countries do what they have to do, so perhaps it's worth the cost, except the policy does not seem particularly effective in furthering US goals toward the North. Indications are that US President George W Bush is not prepared to rethink Korea policy during his second term. Yet were there the will, Bush's re-election (and possibly some kind of political change in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the DPRK) provides an opportunity for a radically different approach.

The general non-proliferation regime, such as it is, strives to deny states the means to produce nuclear weapons. But states that want such weapons seem to figure out ways to get them. It may be more effective to treat the question from the demand side - to address the political goals states hope to serve through the acquisition of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.

North Korea claims its governing motive is security from a US attack. The very disproportion between the power of the United States and the rest of the world gives states an incentive to find ways to counter US pressures. This would be true even if the United States were inclined to mind its own business, but since the early 1990s, the US has shown an unusual propensity to throw its weight around, a pattern only reinforced by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The US has not attacked any states that have nuclear weapons.

North Korea is most directly concerned with the US military presence in South Korea, officially know as the Republic of Korea (ROK). If we look at the matter coldly, there is really no reason for hostility between the United States and the DPRK, except for the US commitment to defend South Korea from a Northern attack. But in the judgment of the ROK's government, this is no longer the problem it used to be.

Of course, since the early 1990s the United States has become more concerned about the North Korean weapons program than about the ever less necessary defense of the South. But without the US commitment to the South, the North would have much less of a rationale for building nuclear weapons. And in the abstract, North Korean nuclear weapons are not a direct threat to the United States, apart from their potential use in a renewed Korean war.

Should the US perhaps cut the Gordian knot: offer North Korea immediate, good-faith, unconditional diplomatic recognition? This would be the most tangible indication that the United States does not intend to attack North Korea (at least as convincing and simpler than a Ribbentrop-Molotov-style non-aggression pact North Korea sometimes whines for): it would be a public US acknowledgment of the DPRK's international legitimacy.

"Unconditional" means the United States should not demand beforehand that the DPRK do anything about its weapons program. It certainly means that recognition should not be accompanied by offers of money in exchange for concessions: questions of aid can be negotiated on their own merits, not as extortion. Nor should normalization be accompanied by any grandstanding - visits by presidents or secretaries of state or such. The tacit acceptance of a nuclear North Korea prevents the weapons program being used as a bargaining chip. Perhaps the United States could reasonably request that the DPRK refrain from selling its weapons or technology to hostile states or unsavory non-state entities.

This modest proposal violates current American policy against bilateral negotiations with North Korea. Although it is now hard to remember, the original rationale for this was to assuage the ROK's not unreasonable fears that direct negotiations between the United States and North Korea would lead to accommodations at the South's expense. But given the current posture of the government in Seoul, this concern also is anachronistic. And as the 1993-94 Pyongyang nuclear crisis demonstrated, the DPRK can force bilateral negotiations over South Korea's head when it presses hard enough.

A side effect of the proposed action would be a dilution of the South Korean-American alliance, a toning down of American political influence in northeast Asia. The United States would abandon any ambition to exercise direct control over much of what goes on in the region.

There will be benefits to the region. America would no longer be in a position to pledge its allies, Japan and South Korea, to bankroll dubious Korean Peninsula Energy Development (KEDO), or KEDO-type boondoggles without consulting with them first. (KEDO was established to provide safe nuclear power to North Korea, but it has been suspended). But the immediate effects of an American-North Korean demarche would probably be consternation. Over the longer run, it could promote multilateral interaction, perhaps fostering the evolution of a Korean security regime guaranteed by the countries participating in the current six-party talks involving North and South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the US.

American power generates distrust of the United States. It also allows free rides on the American bandwagon. On the Korean issue, states can maneuver for their own advantage in ways that are not always constructive, confident that the US will check any North Korean audacity while reserving the luxury of criticizing how America goes about it and reaping the rewards of that criticism. A partial American suspension of offensive military action would encourage a greater sense of responsibility among the regional powers.

In the unlikely event that American recognition results in North Korea's abandoning its nuclear program, there is little left to say. And if there is a problem, it is more the region's than America's. If current South Korean policy is based on illusion, a less prominent American role will encourage a less illusory approach. China wins praise for helping mediate between the DPRK and the United States, but in a way that leaves the impression it thinks it is doing America a favor and that its mediation should give it leverage against America, say, on Taiwan. A more modest American role would induce China to deal with North Korea on its own merits (and if China really believes a nuclear North Korea is, on balance, tolerable, then its mediation is perhaps not worth much anyway).

A limited American regional role does not mean no role; and a lesser degree of engagement is not total disengagement. The American role should be to support, within the constraints of its own interests, regional efforts to handle problems presented by the DPRK. It is not America's place to run the show.

All of this is offered without any excuses for the DPRK, or even too many hopes for immediate effects. To deprive North Korea of the pretext of threats to its security might provide room for internal reforms, at least more so than the present course. But this is nothing to count on. The North Korean regime is truly foul. Its foulness, though, lies in the way it treats its people, in its internal political dynamic, and its indifference to international standards of civilized behavior. It is best dealt with by its neighbors who are directly affected by its foulness, not by a pushy, self-righteous, questionably competent outside superpower.

Peter R Moody Jr is professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, and has written on Chinese politics, the politics of the East Asian states, and the international relations of East Asia.

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

Dec 16, 2004
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