Page 1 of 2 A convenient North Korean distraction
By Peter Lee
United States President Barack Obama's Asian team is embarking on an effort to
realign political forces in North Asia, draw Japan and South Korea closer to
the United States, and undercut Chinese and Russian influence by exploiting
North Korea's posturing.
Washington's primary regional asset is also its weakest link: Japan.
The North Korean crisis represents a collision of two anachronisms: the world's
last Stalinist state versus a fading Cold War alliance ill-equipped to face the
challenge of China, a burgeoning regional power determined to expand its
influence through investment, trade and diplomacy and avoid confrontation
on the United States' primary terms of advantage: military power.
The outlines of the dilemma are becoming clearer as the White House belatedly
cobbles together its East Asian policy team.
On June 10, Kurt Campbell appeared before the East Asian sub-committee of the
Senate Committee on Foreign Relations for confirmation hearings to take over
Christopher Hill's old job: assistant secretary of state for East Asian and
Campbell frankly described the US military presence in Asia as America's
"ticket to the big game" and gave the highest priority to relations with Japan
and South Korea as a counterweight to China.
The main venue for demonstrating enhanced US-Japanese cooperation as a viable
alternative to Chinese diplomatic suzerainty over North Asia is North Korea.
The North Korea crisis has provided the Obama administration a useful
opportunity to correct some problems of the George W Bush years and reaffirm
the alliance with Asian democracies.
In this process, Kim Jong-il has played the role of useful idiot: provoking a
security crisis and providing a readymade justification for the United States
to play to its primary geopolitical strength, as the world's pre-eminent
military power, and discount the value of China's growing economic weight.
At the end of 2008, North Korea concluded a cycle of deal-breaking and
finger-pointing on all sides by repudiating the six-party talks that involve
it, the US, Japan, South Korea, China and Russia.
Since then it has embarked on a series of provocations - nuclear tests, missile
launches, apocalyptic rhetoric and the arrest of two American journalists -
intended to draw the US into direct negotiations.
The Obama administration has refused to take the bait. Instead, it is
exploiting North Korea's belligerence to leverage its primary remaining
advantage in Asian power politics - America's overwhelming military superiority
- and assert America's continued relevance in North Asia.
The Obama administration's approach is welcome news to Japan and South Korea,
which are relieved at the US desire to make common cause with the region's
democracies and not sacrifice their interests for the sake of security and
economic cooperation with China.
This approach, though placing the US in more comfortable alignment with its
allies in the near term, does little to address the long-term challenge to
American influence in Asia: the rise of China. And it does nothing to relieve
the plight of the immiserated people of North Korea.
The Obama administration has made the determination that Pyongyang would never
abandon its nukes, virtually the sole internationally recognized achievement
and asset of the regime. It also realized that the ascendancy of conservative
governments in Seoul and Tokyo made possible a cohesive anti-North Korean bloc.
Therefore, Washington declared itself unwilling to engage in another round of
ritualized atomic extortion with Kim Jong-il's regime.
As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates put it, "I'm tired of buying the same
Instead, the Obama administration meticulously cultivated the powers that the
Bush administration or North Korea had either insulted or disregarded at
various junctures, taking special care to reach out to China.
The result was the relatively amicable passage of a new United Nations Security
Council resolution repurposing two instruments of the Bush administration that
China detested - the Proliferation Security Initiative and financial sanctions
- in order to construct a sanctions regime that everybody could agree with:
non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) material.
Regime change is apparently off the table and denuclearization (at least of
North Korea's weapons program; it would appear that any deal with North Korea
would remove nuclear weapons from the peninsula but allow the north to achieve
parity in civilian nuclear power privileges with the South) has receded to a
distant if ultimate goal.
The near-term purpose of the resolution seemed to be to put Pyongyang on notice
that the US would not fall for North Korea's exercises in nuclear blackmail or
attempts at divide and conquer. For the time being, Pyongyang could engage in
inflammatory rhetoric and engage in nuclear brinksmanship without serious
consequences; but once it crossed the red line of WMD proliferation, it would
face genuinely united opposition, including that of China and Russia.
Having undone some of the diplomatic damage of the George W Bush years and
restored a measure of stability and civility to its relations with South Korea,
Japan and China, the Obama administration appears to be cautiously exploiting
the North Korean crisis and the renewed unity among Asian democracies to gain
some incremental advantage over China.
Campbell, the nominee for assistant secretary of state for East Asia, is the
founder of one of the premier Washington Democratic-tilting policy shops, the
Center for a New American Security (CNAS).
Presumably in coordination with his confirmation testimony, on June 11, CNAS
released a study by Abraham Denmark and Nirav Patel entitled "No Illusions:
Regaining the Strategic Initiative with North Korea". 
As for achieving something tangible in negotiations with North Korea, the paper
holds out hope for little more than interminable discussions backed by
incremental sanctions, a perpetually modulated if pessimistic pounding of North
Korea like a hopelessly tough and inedible steak.
Its prescriptions for the realignment of forces in North Asia are more
significant. The CNAS report unequivocally states that strengthening the US
commitment to its North Asian allies should be Washington's primary short- to
It is crucial to US interests and regional
stability that Japan and South Korea feel secure in the reliability and
efficacy of the US extended deterrent. Japan and South Korea not only form the
core of the US alliance system in Asia - they are also the two countries most
directly threatened by North Korean aggression. Thus, the United States must
assure its allies of its continued commitment to their security, allaying
concerns that have been spurred by the rise of China and intensified recently
by American efforts to negotiate further nuclear reduction agreements with
Indeed, the United States reaffirmed that its extended
deterrent covered Japan when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Tokyo
in January, and covered South Korea during President Lee Myung-bak's recent
visit to Washington, eliciting indignant yelping from North Korea.
As for what negotiations will look like once the United States, South Korea and
Japan are comfortably on the same page, the report offers an interesting
North Korea's departure from the six-party talks should not
be allowed to derail the positive benefits of engaging in regional security
discussions in Northeast Asia. The US government should therefore continue to
engage with its regional partners through the development of a five-party
dialogue. In order to clearly differentiate the five-party process from the
existing six-party framework, the group should consider meeting in a new
location outside of the immediate region, such as in Europe or Southeast Asia.
The missing party in this shift from "six-party talks" to "five-party dialogue"
is North Korea, which would serve as subject of the talks and object of the
five parties' demands, instead of a participant.
Presumably, actual negotiation with North Korea would occur somewhere in the
remote, infinitely receding long term.
But perhaps beyond dealing with the ostensible North Korean threat, the CNAS
paper has other objectives - objectives that are furthered, not hindered, by
the irritating presence of Kim Jong-il's regime.
One intention of this proposal appears to be to strip China of the prestige and
function of serving as a mediator between the US-led democracies and North
American strategy should not wait on Beijing or make itself
dependent on China's decision-making. The strategic management approach
outlined above will be strengthened by Beijing's cooperation, but it will also
place the US in an improved strategic position, even if Beijing is unable, or
unwilling, to hold North Korea accountable for its actions.
moving the talks "outside of the immediate region", the phrase "under China's
aegis", which is so aggravating to the US and worrying to its allies, could be
banished from the lexicon of North Korean diplomacy: instead, the five-party
talks could turn into a forum for pressuring China into conforming to the US
bloc's definition of "responsible stakeholder" as a precondition for doing
anything on North Korea.
The main argument to persuade China to accept the diminution of its role in the
North Korean situation is the threat that conservative forces in South Korea
and Japan are prepared to trigger a conventional and nuclear arms race, thereby
destabilizing the region and challenging China's influence, if Beijing doesn't
join a united front to make the North Korean threat go away.
However, this argument is unlikely to intimidate or convince China, since a
militarily resurgent Japan is anathema to Washington as well as to Beijing.
Japan, as the world's second-largest economy, a democracy and host to America's
primary military presence in Asia, is central to any US strategy.
In his US Senate testimony, Campbell described America's strong partnership
with Japan as "non-negotiable". The first head of state to meet with Obama was
Prime Minister Taro Aso. The first overseas visit for Clinton was Japan.
Japan's current Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) government is equally eager to
present itself as America's enthusiastic ally.
In the all-import economic field, Japan's finance minister differentiated
himself from the no-goodniks in Beijing who were questioning the viability of
the US economy and dollar and who were reconsidering purchases of US bonds -
and signaled his support for the Obama administration's number one priority of
finding a welcome home for hundreds of billions of dollars of US government
debt - by declaring
"... our trust in US Treasuries is absolutely
unshakable. We have complete faith in US economic and fiscal policy," said
Yosano, who is also the minister in charge of Japan's banking sector and
economic policy. "The US dollar's position as the world's reserve currency
isn't under threat." 
In security affairs, the Japanese
government resumed its quasi-military operations (which had been discontinued
at the end of the Bush administration) supporting the US effort in Afghanistan.
The antics of Kim Jong-il have offered a welcome opportunity for Tokyo and
Washington to demonstrate their unity of purpose and strategic convergence on
the issue of North Korea's denuclearization.
However, the North Asian security crisis is only temporarily obscuring a
profound problem at the heart of the US-Japanese alliance: how to maintain the
relevance of a military security alliance when Asia's socialist and capitalist
industrializing economies have opted for economic integration instead.
The US-Japan security relationship - forged in the fires of the Korean War and
founded on the Cold War strategy of containment of hostile communist powers -
is experiencing its last Indian summer as the two allies confront the
anachronistic challenge of the world's last Stalinist state, North Korea.
Japan's conservatives appear determined to draw the wrong lesson from the North
Korean crisis: that projection of military power in coordination with the US is
a necessary and viable means of competing with China for regional influence.
After taking office, Taro Aso, a long-time proponent of an expanded
international role for the Japanese military, made an abortive attempt to
assert Japan's right to "collective self-defense", that is, military
intervention on behalf of allies outside of Japan and outside the framework of
the United Nations.
This doctrine was packaged in part as a reasonable effort to remove the
apparent legal obstacles to Japan shooting down North Korean (or Chinese)
missiles transiting its airspace to US or other targets.
The effort collapsed disastrously when General Toshio Tamogami, the Air
Self-Defense Force (SDF) chief of staff, single-handedly justified China and
the region's oft-derided fears that Japanese militarism was merely hibernating
during the last 50 years.
In an essay supporting "collective self-defense", Tamogami asserted
that Japan should be allowed to exercise the right to collective self-defense
and possess "offensive weaponry", and denied Japan's aggression against other
Asian countries during World War II.
Tamogami said that it was "false" to accuse Japan of having been an aggressor
nation before and during World War II. Japan had been drawn into the
Sino-Japanese war by then-Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek, who headed the
Chinese Nationalist Party, said the general, referring to Japan as "a victim"
in the essay entitled "Was Japan an Aggressor Nation?"