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Home > Media Reiews > Weekly Review Last Updated: 14:57 03/09/2007
Weekly Review #116: November 25, 2003

Stanford Symposium Exposes Bankruptcy of Allied Strategy towards North Korea

John de Boer (Research Associate, GLOCOM; Japan Fellow, Stanford University)

Three former policy makers gathered in the tranquil surroundings of Stanford University this week to discuss the North Korean nuclear "crisis". What they said was revealing considering the fact that news reports over the past several months have described a coordinated strategy on the part of the U.S., South Korea and Japan towards North Korea and an increasing level of commitment by all to resolve the issue. The participants to this forum were Kenji Hiramatsu, (Harvard Fellow, Former Director, Northeast Asia Division, Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs), Kim Won-Soo, (Visiting Scholar, Asia-Pacific Research Center and Secretary to the President of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Republic of Korea), and Philip Yun, (Vice President & Assistant Chairman, H&Q Asia Pacific and former State Department official). All expressed "cautious optimism" that the crisis (although they refused to label it as such) would be resolved, however, none could provide a road map, a time-table or even a list of concrete objectives that could be met in the near future to defuse the situation. In other words, despite their attempt to present a unified front against the "rogue" North Korea, there was no hiding that these "allies" lacked a viable strategy and were incapable of preventing a further escalation in the situation.

All three parties agreed on the goal of pressuring North Korea into abandoning its nuclear ambitions. This objective, they said, was to be met through peaceful means, not necessarily an outcome of the pacific hopes held by the three countries but primarily a result of the fact that no other policy alternatives existed. Armed conflict with the North was simply too costly and a negotiated settlement was the only alternative.

Unfortunately, these three potential peace brokers admitted that true negotiations were not expected to take place anytime soon. The six nation talks, according to Kim, were nothing more than talks about talks. Hiramatsu kept on insisting that Japan would not negotiate until North Korea made verifiable steps towards disarmament and resolved the abduction issue. Philip Yun stated the obvious, namely that the U.S. did not need to get involved in another "process" it already had its hands full with Iraq and the floundering Israel-Palestinian situation. In the end all three tacitly admitted to the fact that nothing is being done to resolve the situation. Nevertheless, all insisted that timing was crucial. The longer these allies waited to engage North Korea and reach a settlement, the more critical the situation would become with the North advancing in its nuclear arms production. Despite this understanding, no party demonstrated a clear idea as to how talks should proceed and no representative expressed the willingness, on the part of their country, to take the initiative and push for a resolution.

What became clear as an outcome of this hour long discussion was the fact that the world, particularly East Asia, will have to live with a heightening security risk and an ongoing humanitarian tragedy in North Korea in the absence of a true commitment on the part of the "allies" to get the problem resolved. As for Japan, Hiramatsu repeatedly expressed the position that his country considered the Pyongyang Declaration as the basis for a comprehensive resolution, a standpoint from which Japan was not willing to budge.

For those in the audience, it was somewhat puzzling to realize that there existed no coordinated strategy and no urgency to negotiate when the security and humanitarian risk posed by North Korea was so obvious. This, particularly so when all three government representatives described the North Korean administration as unpredictable, irrational, paranoid, sensitive and untrustworthy. In fact, Hiramatsu even attributed North Korean leaders with sub-human status when he likened them to little mice crowding in a dark hole and reacting to the tiniest of sounds. When pressed about their expressed "cautious optimism" all in fact conceded that they had nothing to be optimistic about and were just hoping that the situation did not deteriorate, that North Korea wouldn't do anything crazy. However, considering that North Korea is struggling for its very survival, the chances that these hopes will be met are considerably low.

The outcome was a round table that exposed the true standing in "negotiations" with North Korea. It epitomized the bankruptcy of our policy makers in finding a solution to this serious problem. The celebrated six nation talks were nothing more than a talk shop, a waste of time and an opportunity to appear as though U.S., Japanese and South Korean governments were trying to do something. Government officials have been repeatedly quoted in the media as heaping all of the blame for failed talks on unreasonable and fanatical North Korean leaders, however, closer to the truth is the claim that Japan, the U.S. and to a lesser degree South Korea are the ones preventing a potential resolution. If this were indeed the case, it would not be out of the question to say that Japanese and U.S. regimes are using the North Korean "crisis" to further their domestic and international agenda. In the case of Japan, that could be rearmament and racial discrimination against its Korean minority. For the U.S., the motive would be related to the neo-conservative program to extend U.S. hegemony. The reality is a frightening one, and there is no hope for peace if these governments continue on this track.

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