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Reining In Pyongyang

By Henry A. Kissinger
Monday, June 8, 2009

The Obama administration entered office determined to give negotiations with North Korea every opportunity. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hinted that she was seriously considering a visit to Pyongyang. Stephen Bosworth, a distinguished scholar and moderate diplomat, was appointed principal negotiator.

These overtures were vituperatively rejected. Pyongyang refuses to return to the negotiating table and has revoked all its previous concessions. It has restarted the nuclear reprocessing plant it had mothballed and has conducted nuclear weapons and missile tests. It has said the Korean Armistice Agreement of 1953 no longer applies.

The explanation for this may lie in a domestic struggle for succession to the clearly ailing "Dear Leader," Kim Jong Il. North Korea's leaders also seem to have recognized that no matter how conciliatory U.S. diplomacy, its goal of the abandonment of North Korea's nuclear weapons capability cannot be accepted. They apparently have concluded that no degree of political recognition could compensate them for abandoning the signal (and probably sole) achievement of their rule, for which they have obliged their population to accept unprecedented oppression. They may well calculate that weathering a period of international protest is their ticket to emerging as a de facto nuclear power.

Hence the issue for diplomacy has become whether the goal should be to manage North Korea's nuclear arsenal or to eliminate it. The administration has sent an interdepartmental team of senior officials to key countries to consult about the response. It will find no middle ground between the abandonment of the North Korean program and the status quo. Any policy that does not eliminate the North's nuclear military capability in effect acquiesces in its continuation. The negotiating process is on the verge of legitimizing North Korea's nuclear program by enabling Pyongyang to establish a fait accompli while diplomacy runs its stately course.

Acquiescence in the North Korean nuclear program would fly in the face of American foreign policy since we shepherded the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty through the international community in 1967, as well as of the policy President Obama put forward only two months ago in Prague. It would undermine the prospects of the proposed negotiations with Iran. If the North's methods of brazen confrontation are tolerated, nuclear proliferation could run out of control.

A long-term solution to the Korean nuclear problem cannot be achieved by America alone. Nor is it sustainable without the key players of Northeast Asia; that means China, South Korea, the United States and Japan, with an important role for Russia, as well. A wise diplomacy will move urgently to assemble the incentives and pressures to bring about the elimination of nuclear weapons and stockpiles from North Korea. It is not enough to demand unstated pressures from other affected countries, especially China. A concept for the political evolution of Northeast Asia is urgently needed.

China faces challenges that are perhaps more complex than even those facing the United States. If present trends continue, and if Pyongyang manages to maintain its nuclear capability through the inability of the parties to bring matters to a head, the proliferation of nuclear weapons throughout Northeast Asia and the Middle East becomes probable. China would then face nuclear weapons in all surrounding states in Northeast Asia and an unmanageable, nuclear-armed regime in Pyongyang. But if Beijing exercises the full panoply of its pressures without an accord with America and an understanding with the other parties, it has reason to fear chaos along its borders.

Too much of the commentary on the current crisis has concerned the deus ex machina of Chinese pressures on North Korea and complaints that Beijing has not implemented its full arsenal of possibilities. For China, the issue is not so much a negotiating position as concern about its consequences. If the Pyongyang regime is destabilized, the future of Northeast Asia would then have to be settled by deeply concerned parties amid a fast-moving crisis. They need to know the American attitude and clarify their own for that contingency. A sensitive, thoughtful dialogue with China, rather than peremptory demands, is essential.

The outcome of such a dialogue is difficult to predict, but it cannot be managed unless America clarifies its own purposes to itself. A new argument in favor of acquiescence in North Korea's nuclear program contends that Pyongyang's conduct is really a cry for assistance against Chinese domination and thus deserves support rather than opprobrium. But turning North Korea into a ward of the United States is neither feasible nor acceptable to the countries whose support is imperitive for a solution of the nuclear issue.

Furthermore, some public statements imply the United States will try to deal with specific North Korean threats rather than eliminate the capability to carry them out. They leave open with what determination Washington will pursue the elimination of the existing stockpile of North Korean nuclear weapons and fissionable materials. It is not possible to undertake both courses simultaneously.

De facto acquiescence in a North Korean nuclear program would require a reconsideration of U.S. strategic planning. More emphasis would need to be given to missile defense. It would be essential to redesign the American deterrent strategy in a world of multiple nuclear powers -- a challenge unprecedented in our experience. The enhanced role of non-state actors with respect to terrorism would have to be addressed. The concepts of deterrence against state actors are familiar, though not in a world of multiple nuclear powers. They have little or no relevance to non-state actors operating by stealth.

The ultimate issue is not regional but concerns the prospects for world order, especially for a Pacific political structure along the lines put forward by the thoughtful Australian prime minister, Kevin Rudd. There could scarcely be an issue more suited to cooperation among the Great Powers than nonproliferation, especially with regard to North Korea, a regime that is run by fanatics; located on the borders of China, Russia and South Korea; and within missile range of Japan. Still, the major countries have been unable to galvanize themselves into action.

In this multipolar world, many issues such as nuclear proliferation, energy and climate change require a concert approach. The major powers of the 21st century have proved to be heterogeneous and without much experience as part of a concert of powers. Connecting their purposes, however, needs to be their ultimate task if the world is to avoid the catastrophe of unchecked proliferation.

© 2009 Tribune Media Services Inc.

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