US and East Asia still far apart on North Korean "Crisis"
John de Boer (University of Tokyo & GLOCOM Platform)
The threat posed by North Korea seems to heighten on a daily basis. Reports quoting unnamed US officials warn that the rogue state could produce up to fifty-five nuclear bombs a year if all of its three frozen nuclear reactors entered operation (Jim Wolf, Reuters, 24 December). For the moment we are relatively certain that it has at least three nukes and although, the US refuses to recognize that the region is in a "crisis", the situation is escalating with no solution in sight. Over the past week, the number of editorials offering their opinions on how Kim Jong Il should be dealt with have increased and Japan's role in the equation continues to be key. However, the difference in approach between papers in East Asia and the US is great.
In East Asia, the media is calling for caution. They warn against a hard-line and press for dialogue. As has been highlighted in the BBC, South Korea's Chungang Ilbo has praised the US for not cutting off food aid to the North and China's Global Times has called for moderation in handling the nuclear issue suggesting that, "the only hope is for the US to persuade neighboring countries to put pressure on North Korea and ... proclaim itself open to dialogue" (BBC, "East Asia Cautious on North Korea", 4 January). Frank Ching of the South China Morning Post has proposed an international peace conference that will provide guarantees from around the world, most notably the US, East Asia, Russia and the EU (see BBC, "East Asia Cautious on North Korea", 4 January).
On the 3rd January, the Japan Times featured an article written by David Wall (Professor at the Center of International Studies of the University of Cambridge) who argued that Kim Jong Il is by no means a madman but a leader that needs to be negotiated with. Wall believes that Kim has maneuvered cunningly and is convinced that he will not give up his only bargaining chip (nukes) without direct negotiations with the US ("'Dear Leader' no madman", Japan Times, 3 January).
Governments in Asia are responding in kind with Japan, South Korea, China and Russia all agreeing to put diplomatic and economic pressure on North Korea, while pushing the US towards dialogue. Reuters has indicated that Japan is considering restricting remittances and trade with North Korea. China, Russia and South Korea have also agreed to do their part to ensure a peaceful solution (Elaine Lies, "Japan considers limiting trade with North Korea", Reuters, 30 December).
However, the plan proposed by two prominent newspapers across the Pacific differs considerably from those in East Asia. James Dao of the New York Times wrote an article on 5 January promoting a US military disengagement from the Peninsula. He asked, why should the US keep troops in South Korea when the South had a well equipped and competent army with 600,000 troops. Furthermore, Dao argued that in an event of a North Korean attack the 37,000 US troops currently in the South would become detrimental to US interests as they would be "quickly overrun or taken hostage by North Korea" (NYT, 5 January). According to Dao's article, several Pentagon officials seem to support this option. They believe that South Korea is old enough to take care of its own security and have compared the situation to a child learning how to ride a bicycle. An unnamed Pentagon official was quoted as stating that, "at some point you have to let go". Other policy makers disagree, one of them being Zbigniew Brzezinski (a former National Security Advisor to Jimmy Carter), who cited Japan as the main obstacle to such a withdrawal (James Dao, 5 January). Kurt Campbell (Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense to Clinton) agreed, arguing that a troop withdrawal in South Korea would be interpreted as a lack of commitment by the US to resolve the North Korean problem. Dao quoted Campbell as stating that, "mind-sets in Asia are profoundly traditional. They calculate political will by the number of soldiers, ships and airplanes that they see in the region" (Dao, 5 January). Although it is unlikely that the US will withdraw its troops from the Korean Peninsula any time soon, it is relatively clear that its forward deployment in South Korea is of little more than symbolic significance as long as its forces continue to be dispatched to in the Gulf region.
A more radical approach was promoted by Washington Post columnist, Charles Krauthammer. In his article entitled "The Japan Card", Krauthammer spoke of the few options the US had in dealing with North Korea and suggested that the US think about using its trump card. "We do have one, but we dare not speak its name", said Krauthammer going on to state that the card was, "a nuclear Japan". He claimed that the US, "should go to the Chinese and tell them plainly that if they do not join us in squeezing North Korea and thus stopping its march to go nuclear, we will endorse any Japanese attempt to create a nuclear deterrent of its own. If our nightmare is a nuclear North Korea, China's is a nuclear Japan". He then ended his column stating that, "it's time to share the nightmares".
Judging from these opinions, which by no means represent the entire spectrum, it is clear that we still have a way to go before a consensus can be reached as to how the US and its allies in East Asia (along with China and Russia) should deal with North Korea. Although a military strike has been ruled out, the US remains far from the negotiating table and with good reason. However, as David Wall suggests, Kim Jong Il has played his cards perfectly and with Japan, South Korea, China and Russia all refusing a hard-line, it may be just a matter of time before multilateral talks with North Korea, led by the US, begin.
- James Dao, "Why keep US Troops in South Korea?", The New York Times, 5 January 2003
- Charles Krauthammer, "The Japan Card", The Washington Post, 3 January 2003
- David Wall, "'Dear Leader' no madman", Japan Times, 3 January 2003
- Jim Wolf, "US fears N. Korea could get 50 bombs a year", Reuters, 24 December 2002
- Elaine Lies, "Japan considers limiting trade with N. Korea", Reuters, 30 December 2002
- "East Asia Caution on North Korea", BBC, 4 January 2003