The Quagmire in East Asia
John de Boer (University of Tokyo & GLOCOM Platform)
The crisis in East Asia is escalating. Despite a rare show of unity by the EU, the US, Japan and South Korea to halt all oil shipments to North Korea beginning in December, the military and humanitarian threat posed by the regime in North Korea is heightening to unprecedented levels. One day after a joint statement was issued by the EU, Japan and South Korea to support President Bush's decision to put an end to the 500,000 tons of heavy oil that his country has been supplying to the North ever since 1994, Kim Jong Il increased the stakes by declaring that his country has a nuclear arsenal.
According to most US news sources, by banning oil supplies the US and its allies are hoping that the prospects of a cold winter for millions of North Koreans will pressure Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program. Nevertheless news media such as the New York Times and the Washington Post don't expect the North to react in a manner conducive to reducing tensions in the region and helping its people avert starvation and cope with harsh winter conditions. Journalists such as Edith M. Lederer of the Washington Post raise concerns that North Korea will react by speeding up its nuclear program (November 18). If that occurs Lederer predicts the eruption of a "full blown" crisis. Unfortunately, there is no precedent to indicate that Lederer's prediction won't be fulfilled. Already, news magazines such as Newsweek are drawing analogies to the Cuban Missile Crisis suggesting that we should learn from JFK when dealing with Kim Jong Il.
There are others such as the BBC who remain skeptical of the truth behind the revelations made by North Korea. On 17 November the BBC's Charles Scanlon claimed that the state run media in the North often contains hostile rhetoric and raised doubts regarding the authenticity of the claim that the North had nuclear weapons. There also exist concerns in Asia, such as those represented by the Singapore Straits Times, that Pyongyang's psychological warfare will press Japan to militarize and even acquire nuclear weapons (11 November, quoted in Washington Post). These fears are in part based on the fact that Japan and the US have become more open about their cooperation to develop a missile shield by 2008. Just last week the chief of Japan's Defense Agency, Shigeru Ishiba, declared that the US and Japan, "should exert efforts to get the program to leave the research phase as soon as possible" (11 November, Washington Post). While the concern in Europe, US and Japan is limited to eliminating North Korea's nuclear capability others in Asia are worried about the consequences that the North's admission is having on militarization in the region as a whole.
Personally, I think that Japan and its allies in this conflict need to make a more concerted effort to shake thefoundations of Kim Jong Il's power sources. The latest strategy to halt oil shipments to the North will likely be used by Kim as a weapon to bolster opposition against the outside world and boost the legitimacy of the regime's "struggle against imperialism". Millions of the most vulnerable will die while Kim Jong Il's support base strengthens. In the meantime, the value of its nuclear arsenal as a bargaining chip will increase. The outcome will be exactly the opposite of that desired by the coalition, creating a more dangerous and powerful enemy.
Instead, the coalition must work to cut off the regime's critical sources of income by shutting down its businesses overseas, clamping down on drug smuggling and missile sales. The strategy must be to hurt the vested interests held by North Korea's government elite and not its most vulnerable population.
- Edith M. Lederer, "US Allies Back North Korea Punishment", The Washington Post, 15 November 2002
- James Brooke, "A Missile Shield Appeals to a Worried Japan", New York Times, 11 November 2002
- "North Korea admits nuclear arsenal", BBC, 17 November 2002
- Li Xueying, "N. Korea's nuclear card meant to bully US", Singapore Straits Times, 18 November 2002