Two Visions of Convergence in Northeast Asia: The Bush Administration, North Korean Nuclear Weapons, and the Regional Powers


Dennis Florig

Hanyang University Graduate School of International Studies


I. Introduction


The economic integration of East Asia and the movement toward political and ideological convergence over the past two decades has been almost as dramatic as it was unexpected.  Yet the North Korean nuclear crisis threatens to reverse this progress and perhaps even trigger a major rupture in regional relations. 


Many of the papers in this conference will be devoted to the historical commonalities and differences in the experiences of Americans, Asians, and Asian-Americans, and the ever more complex social and intellectual interaction of these peoples.  Underlying these issues of identity is an economic and political reality—the ever greater integration of the Asia-Pacific.  This process is generating two contradictory phenomena--the increasing sense of cultural convergence across the Pacific and the growing awareness of cultural difference between peoples brought into interaction as never before. 


Intensification or interruption of this regional integration will profoundly affect all the peoples of the Asia-Pacific and their conceptions of their identities.  If convergence is understood as assimilation of the panoply of traditional Asian cultures into a pale, homogenous, pseudo-universal western dominated ideological hegemony, then it is clearly undesirable.  But convergence as it is used in this paper is conceived as a lessening of political tensions and development of institutions to ensure peace and security in a diverse area historically prone to armed conflict.  That kind of convergence around a stable regional security regime would seem to most to be a good thing.


This paper discusses two different visions of how to further positive convergence and resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis.  The vision of evolutionary, multilateral regional convergence is increasingly challenged by the hard-liners in the Bush administration who seek rapid regime change in the North and resurgence of American hegemony in the Asia Pacific. 


This paper begins with an overview of the changes in post-Cold War and post-September 11 American policy toward the Asia Pacific.  The issues posed by the first North Korean nuclear crisis are then presented.  The paper covers how this crisis was initially defused and how this apparent resolution unraveled and the problem reemerged. The perspective of each of the major regional powers on the Korean situation is briefly examined.  Then the two different visions of convergence are investigated in detail.  The conclusion discusses which vision is more likely to actually lead to successful regional convergence and which vision is more likely to prevail in practice.



II. Changing Global Context and Changing American Foreign Policy


In the past two decades the Cold War division pitting the U.S., Japan, and South Korea against the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea has ebbed.  There has been considerable integration of the economies of the Asia-Pacific.  In the late Cold War China moved toward the West, first in tacit strategic cooperation against the Soviet Union, then later with its economic opening.  The Cold War on a global scale came to an end with the collapse of the Soviet Union and Russia¡¯s opening to Europe and the West although remnants of the Cold War structure remained on the divided Korean Peninsula. 


Many observers saw globalization bringing ever greater convergence of the Asia-Pacific into one peaceful trading system.  However, economic integration did not end political tensions entirely as western cultural and institutional hegemony clashed with ¡°Asian values.¡±  Many in the American political leadership were uneasy with the rise of Chinese power and the potential threat to American primacy in the region.  But clearly the overall trend was the breaking down of barriers and the muting of historic conflict in Northeast Asia.


The early effect of the September 11 attack was to further this tendency toward convergence.  Southeast Asian nations with large Muslim populations, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore, had been at the center of the Asian values movement.  But now they were most threatened by the rise of Islamic extremism and hastened to cooperate with the U.S. on its global counterinsurgency campaign.  China, with its own Muslim minorities on its western frontiers and its historic suppression of dissident religious groups, essentially concurred with the new anti-Islamic campaign of the U.S.  American criticism of authoritarian regimes in the region was muted as a blind eye was turned to strong arm tactics against political Islam, intelligence on Muslim extremists was shared, and joint operations against Islamicist groups mushroomed.


However, after September 11 divergence between the major powers has also occurred.  There was widespread global opposition to the U.S. and British invasion of Iraq, expressed not only by Arab and Islamic states, not only by Russia and China, but also by historic American allies France and Germany. As recently pointed out by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, the Bush administration doctrine of pre-emption of potential terrorist threats runs counter to the rules of the international system that have been developing since the end of World War II.  The unilateral right the U.S. has asserted to take military action anywhere in the world any time it decides it feels threatened by potential terrorist action violates principles of state sovereignty and collective security long held sacrosanct by international law.  It remains to be seen just how far the U.S. will push this doctrine of pre-emption, whether it is a short term overreaction to U.S. fears after September 11 or a more long term transformation of American foreign policy doctrine.



III. The North Korean Nuclear Crises


Iraq is a charter member of George W. Bush¡¯s ¡°axis of evil.¡±  So is North Korea.  The division of the Korean Peninsula is the most dangerous relic of the Cold War.  This partition has become all the more perilous because North Korea¡¯s pursuit of nuclear weapons makes it a prime candidate for the Bush administration¡¯s post-September 11 doctrines of pre-emption and regime change.


The first North Korean nuclear crisis threatened a radical rupture in relations in Northeast Asia, as mutual threats of military action brought the peninsula to the brink of war.   However, tensions were eventually diffused by negotiation, demonstrating that historic hostilities could be overcome.  Yet reaching a second deal may prove tougher because of the rise of tensions in the international system and the mutual suspicions engendered by the breakdown of the first agreement.


The Agreed Framework negotiated in 1993-94 seemed to promise a convergence of interests in Northeast Asia and make possible a dismantling of the Cold War system on the Korean Peninsula.  In return for renouncing nuclear weapons, North Korea was to be brought into the international system.  Not only would North Korea be provided with alternative energy supplies, the U.S. would recognize the Pyongyang government, U.S. trade restrictions would be dropped, and the U.S. would allow international institutions to lend support to the rickety North Korean economy. 


The massive changes envisioned by the Agreed Framework were slow to work out in practice.  Follow-up talks were repeatedly postponed and political relations between the North and the U.S. remained far from normal.  However, the U.S., South Korea, and Japan began closely coordinating their engagement policies with the North through the mechanism of Trilateral Cooperation of Governments (TCOG).   The historic Pyongyang summit of South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was followed up by several rounds of bilateral talks.  Kim Dae Jung was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his sunshine policy.  A parade of foreign leaders trekked to Pyongyang, including former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry, then sitting Secretary of State Madeline Albright, and Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi.  Kim Dae Jung even proposed regular multilateral meetings, which he labeled the Northeast Asian Security Dialogue, to facilitate regional integration and eventually replace the Cold War security architecture.


Despite the flurry of diplomatic activity, the Agreed Framework was never fully implemented.  The promised new nuclear power facilities are still far from becoming operational.  Normal trade and political relations between North Korea and the U.S. were never established.  North Korea resisted international inspections of its nuclear facilities.


In recent years new divergences have emerged.  The Bush administration that came to power in 2001 was suspicious of the Clinton engagement policy.  It suspended talks with the North.  Friction between the Bush administration and the Kim Dae Jung government had already surfaced before 911.  Just a few months after 911 in his first State of the Union address President Bush included North Korea in his ¡°axis of evil,¡± implying they were a candidate for ¡°regime change,¡± further undermining the South¡¯s sunshine policy.


In October 2002 it was revealed that North Korea had been secretly experimenting with uranium enrichment for nuclear weapons, a violation of its non-nuclear commitments under the Agreed Framework and other international agreements.  The United States suspended its participation in the Agreed Framework and began an international campaign to isolate North Korea and force it to renounce nuclear weapons entirely.  North Korea reacted angrily to the new hard line, demanding a non-aggression pact with the U.S. before it would agree to any restrictions on its nuclear weapons development. Rhetoric and tensions between the U.S. and the North ratcheted up as a full fledged second nuclear crisis developed.  Pyongyang suspended international monitoring of its existing nuclear program and threatened to reprocess its plutonium forweapons.


In recent months a few rays of hope have appeared.  China brokered talks between Pyongyang, which demanded direct negotiations with the U.S., and Washington, which was demanding multilateral talks involving all powers in the region.  A six power meeting between the North, the U.S., the South, Japan, Russia and China was recently held.  No concrete progress was made and questions remain whether a second round of multilateral talks will even occur. 


IV. Other Powers and the North Korean Crisis


How have the other powers in Northeast Asia reacted to the North Korean nuclear crisis and the stand-off between the U.S. and North Korea?  All powers in the region back the U.S. goal of a non-nuclear Korean Peninsula.  But there is one key difference in perspective that all the local powers have vs. the U.S. point of view.  All regional players have been unsettled by the Bush hard-line and its seeming intent of regime change in the North.  While the U.S. would be largely insulated from the direct effects of a collapse of the Pyongyang regime, all other nations in the region would certainly suffer greatly from massive streams of refugees fleeing a failing economy and society.  No one knows to what degree a collapsing North might strike out against its neighbors, nor the level of civil strife between rebels and remnant factions of the falling regime.  No one can predict the degree to which such conflict would further destroy the North¡¯s decaying infrastructure and/or engender struggles between regional powers over the shape of a post-collapse regime.  But these concerns make Northeast Asian nations much more reluctant than the U.S. to seek rapid regime change in the North. 


South Korea


The nuclear crisis has reminded the South of its dependence on Washington, and officially the South has backed the U.S.  But there have been serious frictions in the relationship since the Bush administration came to power which still percolate barely below the surface.  Differences between the U.S. and South Korea over nuclear weapons policy are nothing new.  The former dictator Park Chung Hee raised the ire of the U.S. when he sought nuclear weapons for South Korea.  In the mid-1990s the Kim Young Sam administration gave less than complete support to the Clinton engagement policy, feeling left out of the negotiations over the Agreed Framework and suspicious of the motives not only of the North but also of the U.S.


In the late 1990s Kim Dae Jung¡¯s sunshine policy dovetailed more easily with Clinton¡¯s engagement.  But when Bush abandoned engagement for a new hard-line, new frictions emerged not only with Kim Dae Jung and his successor Roh Moo Hyun, but also with progressive forces in South Korea who protested Bush¡¯s policies and the conduct of U.S. armed forces in Korea in massive numbers.


Open South Korean criticism of Bush policies has been muted by the severity of the current crisis.  The U.S. and South Korea clearly share the goal of de-nuclearizing the North.  But there are still serious differences on the way of reaching this goal.  The South has continued to try to engage the North, while the Bush administration until very recently relied more on isolation and punishment of Pyongyang.




The other historic U.S. ally in the region, Japan, has been more in line with the U.S.  As the former colonial occupier of Korea, Japan is still vilified in the North and widely distrusted even in the South.  It was no accident that the last North Korean test of an advanced missile was shot over Japanese airspace.   On the heels of the North Korean provocation Japan, which had been resisting U.S. pressure, signed on for co-development of missile defense systems.


Japanese attitudes toward the North have been hardened by North Korean admission that it abducted several Japanese citizens.  Some of the abductees have been allowed to return to Japan, but emotions still run high over the fate of the children of the abductees and those abductees that North Korea claims are dead.


A nuclear North Korea could have great impact on Japanese foreign policy.   So far, this prospect has only spurred Japan to seek reassurance in its alliance with the U.S.  But a permanent North Korean nuclear threat would strengthen the currently isolated militarists and raise significantly the probability that Japan would seek nuclear weapons of its own.




How have America¡¯s historic rivals in the region responded to the U.S.-North Korea stand-off?  On the one hand, no neighbor of North Korea can feel comfortable with the prospect of the Pyongyang regime with nuclear weapons.  But on the other hand, Russia and China have been more inclined to seek a middle ground between the U.S. and the North.  Russian grand strategy is still deeply committed to joining the West, and so as a general rule Moscow tries to minimize friction with Washington.  But Russia still has ties to North Korea, and as seen in the case of Iraq, Moscow can still be critical of American unilateralism.  Most of all Russia wants a place at the table—to be recognized as still a global and regional power that has a significant role to play on the Korean Peninsula.




After the U.S., China is the most important external power in the Korean drama.  China is not only a growing economic and political force, it is also North Korea¡¯s closest friend.  China is the only nation that still has significant trade with the North, and perhaps the only power with significant positive influence over Pyongyang.  The North Korean regime has become a liability and an embarrassment to China, but Beijing cannot just abandon Pyongyang without serious domestic and international consequences.   


Next to South Korea China has the most to lose from deterioration of the situation on the Korean Peninsula.  It is already experiencing a refugee crisis on its border.  But its current refugee problem would pale compared to what would ensue if there were military or civil conflict in the North.  China has profited greatly from the goodwill it has built up with the West in the past two decades and its growing participation in the global trading system.  These gains could be undone by military conflict in the region or prolonged confrontation with Washington over Korea.  China wants to avoid anything that undermines the economic growth that has been the foundation of its renewed influence in the region.  Moreover, the legitimacy of its own regime might come under further question in the wake of the sweeping away of a neighboring socialist regime. 


On the other hand, China has the most to gain from resolution of the crisis.  A robust peace regime on the Korean peninsula would do much to ensure the regional stability that is the prerequisite for further growth of Chinese economic and political power.  An active role in defusing the current conflict would cement China¡¯s role as a constructive regional power. 


China has been reluctant to take an activist public stance on Korean issues not only because of the intractability of the problems but also due to its own changing relations with Pyongyang, Seoul, and Washington.  However, recently recognition of both the dangers and opportunities posed by the Korean crisis has spurred China to take a leading role in fostering multilateral talks aimed at defusing the ticking time bomb on its border.


V. Two Approaches to the Korean Nuclear Crisis, Two Visions of the Future of Northeast Asia


While each nation in the region has its own unique set of interests and perspectives on the Korean crisis, divisions over how to deal with the Korean nuclear crisis cross national boundaries.  The contrast between the Clinton engagement policies and the Bush hard line show that there are significant divergences between conservatives and progressives in the U.S. over how to deal with Pyongyang. 


These same conservative-progressive differences can also be seen in South Korea and Japan.  Progressives have had the upper hand in Seoul in the past two presidencies, but powerful conservative forces in the National Assembly and within the society have resisted sunshine policies from the beginning.  The escalation of tensions on the peninsula has strengthened the hand of the conservatives in the South and forced the Roh Moo Hyun government to give greater lip service to coordination of its policies with the Bush administration.  However, significant divergences remain not only between Seoul and Washington, but also within the South as well.


The same is true in Japan to a lesser extent.  Tendencies toward engagement were buoyed by Prime Minister Koizumi¡¯s trip to Pyongyang, but a harder line has followed the nuclear revelations and lack of progress on the abductees issue.  In the shadow world of Japanese consensus politics individual politicians rarely stake out clear stances.  However, prolonged confrontation with North Korea energizes both revaunchist sentiment for a nuclear armed Japan and neo-pacifist dread of being drawn into a new conflict on the Korean Peninsula.


Similar divergences exist in China and Russia.  Hard-liners in both China and Russia place more value on historic ties with the Pyongyang regime and have been highly critical of the Bush administration¡¯s policies of isolation and punishment of the North.  Reformers in both China and Russia, focused on better ties with the U.S. and the West, are more critical of Pyongyang intransigence on both military and economic issues and less critical of Washington¡¯s pressure on the North.


At the heart of these policy divisions within each nation lie two fundamentally different views of the future of the Northeast Asian region.  Both these perspectives ultimately predict and seek convergence of Northeast Asia into one peaceful zone of economic and human development.  But they differ significantly on how this convergence should be achieved.


The Evolutionary, Multilateral View of Convergence 


The evolutionary, multilateral view of convergence sees basic parallel interests of all the nations in the region in economic growth and political stability.  It relies on broad based multilateral organizations like APEC and ASEAN to institutionalize economic integration and harmonize political interests.   According to this viewpoint, despite huge economic, political, and cultural differences between the peoples of the Asia-Pacific, growing trade and economic integration can progressively reduce cultural barriers and political conflict as each nation develops an ever greater stake in peaceful and secure regional development.


Perhaps the single most serious obstacle to this vision of continuing multilateral integration in the Asia-Pacific is the Korean problem.  Before a truly benign multilateral system can emerge, the current nuclear crisis must be defused and the Cold War division of the Korean Peninsula must be overcome. 


All the great powers in the region have a parallel interest in the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.  If the current impasse can be overcome, the two Koreas could be gradually demilitarized, much as Germany and central Europe was at the end of the 20th century.  Simultaneously the North Korea regime must be reformed and brought into the international system.  Once these processes are set in motion, a new multilateral security architecture can replace the Cold War division of Korea. 


The key to the evolutionary, multilateral vision of convergence is the harmonization of the interests of all the nations in the region.  Security concessions and political reform in the North would be matched by security concessions and political flexibility by the U.S. and its allies South Korea and Japan.  The security of a demilitarizing Korean Peninsula would be assured by joint guarantees of each of the 4 major Northeast Asian powers.  No one power will prevail, but all powers will negotiate and compromise until all parties can satisfy their basic security, economic, and political interests.


Convergence under U.S. Hegemony through Rapid Regime Change


The hard-liners in the Bush administration and their counterparts in South Korea and Japan also seek regional convergence, but on different terms and through different means.  Their vision can be labeled convergence under U.S. hegemony through regime change.  The hard-liners seek not compromise and mutual concessions but conversion of regimes that oppose the U.S.  The new regimes that emerge will accommodate themselves to U.S. power and an international system dedicated to maintaining U.S. and more broadly western predominance. 


Bush¡¯s axis of evil speech laid out the rationale for removing ¡°rogue¡± regimes from power.  The invasion of Iraq over the opposition of not only of Russia and China but also historic U.S. allies like France and Germany demonstrated the hard-liners belief that only the U.S. has both the capability and the will impose regime change on rogue states and bring a new international order to regions in conflict.


Despite its harsh rhetoric, the Bush administration has never been as eager for armed conflict in Northeast Asia.  The U.S. is deterred by the probability that the North can make the U.S. pay a stiffer price than the Iraqis.  The Bush administration is even more influenced by the opposition of not only its historic rivals in the region, China and Russia, but also by its historic allies, South Korea and Japan, all of whom would be catastrophically affected by streams of refugees and political instability that would be the inevitable consequences of armed conflict with the North.  But North Korea¡¯s economic failure and political isolation have encouraged wishful thinking in Washington that the Pyongyang regime is so rickety that a small push will topple it and set in motion a quick and painless transition to a government more friendly to the U.S. if only the U.S. and its allies have the will to stand down Kim Jong Il. 


These hard-liners believe that China and Russia may squawk at a tough U.S. policy but in the end they will have no choice but to go along.  The hard-liners believe the opponents to U.S. policy in those countries are also on the wrong side of history and on their way out of power and influence in Beijing and Moscow, that they are undergoing their own more gradual regime changes.  According to the hard-liners, hard military and economic American power must be utilized to isolate and punish the North, while the softer power of the ideological and institutional attraction of joining the prosperous West deters China and Russia from effectively opposing this U.S. strategy.  In this view, if China or Russia do pose sustained resistance to U.S. policy, they are outed as not truly internationalized and liberalized regimes not ready to constructively participate in the U.S.-led international system anyway.


Convergence and Rupture in Both Views of the Northeast Asian Future


Both visions of convergence also imply ruptures with the past.  The convergence through regime change view threatens to bring North Korea and the U.S. and its allies into open conflict, with the reaction of China and Russia quite unpredictable.  Even if armed conflict is avoided, the region may well be repolarized into two hostile camps, not only crushing the hopes raised of reconciliation of the two Koreas but perhaps also undermining the economic and political integration of the East Asian region.


But the evolutionary, multilateral vision also implies a serious rupture with the past.  Genuinely multilateral security guarantees and institutions would have to reflect the interests of not only the current American hegemon, but also the rising power of China as well as the continuing interests of Japan and Russia.  The U.S. would most likely have to relinquish its position as sole superpower given to unilateral action to entice full Chinese and Russian participation in a new security architecture. 


VI. Which Vision Is More Likely to Further Regional Convergence?


The Dangers of Rapid Regime Change


The vision of the hard-liners of quick, easy, rapid regime change is unlikely to be realized.    Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, predictions of the imminent failure of the North Korean regime have abounded, yet however besieged Kim Jong Il remains in power.  Every intensification of U.S. military pressure to coerce the North seems only to reinforce the siege mentality in Pyongyang. 


Success in toppling Kim Jong Il would probably be worse than failure because it would most likely be massively destabilizing to the Northeast Asian region.  Every ratcheting up of the military pressure also increases the possibility of escalation into actual conflict.  The North could not prevail in such a conflict, but it could impose massive costs on the South and perhaps large scale casualties on the American forces in the South.  Even more seriously in the long run, a military conflict in Korea could repolarize the region.  China or Russia could conceivably be drawn into a second Korean war.  Even if they stood aside this time, they would have to react strongly to unilateral U.S. action so close to their borders.  Integration of the region would grind to a halt and repolarization into opposing camps would be highly likely.


Even if collapse of the Kim Jong Il regime could be engineered without open military conflict, the consequences would be dire.  Huge numbers of refugees would almost certainly flee starvation and deprivation, flooding not only south but across the Chinese and Russian borders.  Civil strife between factions of the imploding regime and between civilians and regime remnants would not only further degrade infrastructure and interfere with relief efforts, but the South and outside powers could well be drawn into a morass as bad or worse than the current situation in Iraq.  After the trauma of a tragic transition, there is no guarantee any new North Korean regime could overcome half a century of anti-American indoctrination and an even longer history of ant-foreign sentiment to become a more tractable member of the regional community.


The North¡¯s Reform Dilemma


North Korea faces a difficult balancing act, a serious reform dilemma.  The Bush administration and the hard-liners in the South need to realize the tightrope the North Korean regime is walking.  If it leans too far toward maintaining the existing system, the North will fall into oblivion.  But if it leans too far toward rapid reform, the regime could quickly become as irrelevant as Gorbachev became in the Soviet Union, with the additional danger that prominent members could end up on trial for their lives like leaders of the former Yugoslavia.  As Moon and Kim put it

For Pyongyang, the Soviet failure must be a negative path model that should be avoided at any price.  The reason North Korea has yet to introduce and implement serious economic reforms is not because it doesn¡¯t want to change, but rather because its leadership is concerned about reforms slipping out of its control.

While some hard-liners in the U.S. so ardently hope for such a day that they would pay any cost, they should be more careful what they wish for.  Gradual reform and transition is a much less catastrophic method to defuse the ticking time bomb on the Korean peninsula.


Certainly the regime in the North is still light years from a liberal, capitalist system, although the North may be willing to embark on a path that will eventually force it to jettison its long-time goals of communizing the South.  If Mao¡¯s China and the Vietnamese who fought for generations against the U.S. and the West can reform and open up, so can the North.  The more the North opens up to the South and the global capitalist economy, the more the regime in the North will be changed.  Realists in the North recognize U.S. military superiority and realize that the only way to reduce the U.S. threat to the North is to reduce the Northern threat to the South.  The revolutionary slogans still spouted from hard-liners in the North will eventually be tempered and finally abandoned if the North becomes more enmeshed with the South and the global system.  The experience not only in Russia and Eastern Europe, but also in China and Vietnam, shows that seemingly highly ideological communist party leaders can be enticed to turn themselves into state capitalists if they themselves can profit from the transition.


The goals of reform, reconciliation, and a peace regime are tightly interrelated.  Some reform in the North is necessary to assure the United States and South Korea that things have changed and the historic North Korean goal of reunification through communization has been abandoned.  But North Korean reforms are likely to remain only incremental until the regime can be assured of its security and survival.  The issues of reform and security are both/and, not either/or. 

Reform of the North and easing of security tensions must go hand-in-hand.  U.S. and South Korean concerns about the authenticity of changes in the North must be assuaged if there is to be real movement on security issues.  But the regime in the North cannot really relax its grip until it can be assured that it is not signing its own death warrant.  Progress on reform is necessary for a true peace regime to emerge, but progress on security issues is also necessary before real reform can take hold.  The North needs to truly accept that more substantial reform must come.  But hard-liners in the U.S. and the South must also accept that a gradual reform of the North is preferable to rapid regime change. 


Can an Evolutionary, Multilateral Approach Succeed?


Only an evolutionary, multilateral approach has any real chance of resolving the Korean nuclear crisis in a way that furthers integration of the region.  An evolutionary approach is necessary because it is the only way to overcome the North¡¯s reform dilemma.


Multilateralism is necessary because only an approach that satisfies each of the major powers in the region will bind them to participate in the development of a new security architecture for the region.  Only an approach that meets the basic security interests of each power will get all the powers on board and avoid repolarization of the region.


Of course, there is no guarantee an evolutionary, multilateral approach will succeed.  However reasonable the inducements of the outside powers, the North could always choose isolation over integration into the international system and ideological purity over real reform.  The Bush administration could remain so ideologically hostile to Pyongyang and so unwilling to compromise that the North has little to gain from engagement.  The Bush administration could be so jealous of U.S. supremacy in the region that a new truly multilateral security architecture cannot emerge.  China¡¯s distrust of U.S. power and American motives could also be a serious obstacle to the development of a multilateral regime.  All the powers talk multilateralism, but everybody means something different by multilateralism and eaxh power wants something different from it.


VII. Which Vision Will Prevail?


Which vision of Northeast Asian convergence will prevail?  No one has a crystal ball.  Most analysts in both the U.S. and South Korea are focused on the behavior of the North.  There is an old saying in the U.S., ¡°You can lead a horse to water, but you can¡¯t make him drink.¡±  No matter what carrots or sticks are put to Pyongyang, ultimately the North has to become committed to fundamental change and willing to part with the one bargaining chip it has used for a decade to get the attention of the rest of the world.  Pyongyang seemed to be willing to do just that in signing the Agreed Framework.  However, the Agreed Framework was never fully implemented, in part because of the North¡¯s unwillingness to live up to its commitments.


It is an oversimplification to blame the failure of the Agreed Framework on North Korean intransigence.  The U.S. and its allies also did not live up to their commitments, most notably in the failure of the U.S. to normalize relations.  The outside world, particularly the hard-liners in the Bush administration, need to become more sensitive to the reform dilemma the North Koreans face.  Yet in the end, the problem will not go away unless the North Koreans are willing to part with their nuclear weapons.  And the North cannot solve its security or economic problems unless it finds a way to survive without nuclear weapons and open itself up to participation in the regional system.


On the other side, questions remain about just how deeply the Bush administration is committed to rapid regime change in the North and to isolation and punishment of the North until the regime falls.  The Bush administration has been sending mixed signals on its policy from the beginning.  The ¡°axis of evil¡± speech was accompanied by promises to talk with the North.  Denunciations of Kim Jong Il have come along with assurances the U.S. would not attack North Korea.  Suspension of projects under the Agreed Framework has been followed with requests for multilateral negotiations.  At the same time the U.S. was invading Iraq it was stating that there was no ¡°cookie cutter approach¡± to axis of evil states.


The Bush administration may be learning that despite its wish for rapid regime change, policies intended to achieve that end are unpalatable to both friends and former rivals in the region, and more importantly, unlikely to succeed without unacceptable costs.  The Iraq adventure is not turning out as intended.  As long as the U.S. has more than a hundred thousand troops bogged down there, it will be difficult to mobilize more forces to confront a North Korea much more able to inflict damage in a military conflict.  Furthermore, the Bush administration¡¯s frustrations in going it largely alone in Iraq may have made it more receptive to the pleas of Northeast Asian regional powers to avoid unilateral military confrontation with North Korea.  The multilateral talks the U.S. sought to pressure the North to give up its nuclear weapons have also intensified pressure by the other powers in the region on the U.S. to moderate its positions.


The U.S. is only a year from its next presidential election.  Previous Republican hard-line presidents have made dramatic reversals under re-election pressures.  Facing re-election, the inveterate cold warrior Richard Nixon flew to Beijing and opened up to Mao¡¯s China and then flew to Moscow and signed the first serious arms control treaties with the Soviet Union.  Ronald Reagan¡¯s ¡°new cold war¡± was put on the back burner during his re-election campaign and in his second term the man who had opposed every arms control treaty the U.S. ever signed became buddies with Gorbachev and signed sweeping arms reduction treaties.  As yet Bush has not faced the kind of domestic pressure that the anti-Vietnam war movement put on Nixon or the anti-nuclear movement put on Reagan, but support for his Iraq policies is slipping daily and protests are rising.


So far the Bush administration has been deterred from unilateral action against North Korea, but that will not prove enough.  Inaction will not slow North Korean nuclear development.  The U.S. will have to actively engage the North and be willing to compromise on key security issues if there is to be any hope of resolving the nuclear crisis in a way that furthers convergence in the region.


This is perhaps where the other powers in the region must play a greater role.  South Korea is an increasingly important player.  Prodding by the South has been one of the major factors in moving the Bush administration from its original reluctance to talk to its current ambivalent position.  The South can remain a key catalyst in keeping communication open, although it does not have the leverage to force either the U.S. or the North to bargain seriously.


Similarly, the other regional powers can play a constructive role in pressuring both the U.S. and the North to negotiate.  China has both the most influence with the North and the most to lose it the situation deteriorates further.  Russia and Japan have less leverage with the North, but they stand to win prestige and influence if they can help broker a new agreement and gain participation in an ongoing multilateral dialogue. 


Japan also figures into the equation as the only non-nuclear regional power.  If the North Korean nuclear issue remains unresolved, Japan may choose to develop its own nuclear weapons, or it may continue to show the restraint it has demonstrated in the past 60 years.


It is important to keep the six party talks alive even if there is no apparent progress.  Simply keeping communication open can be the beginning of a learning process.  It is at least possible that hard-liners in both North Korea and the Bush administration will learn how isolated they are from the feelings of the other peoples and nations in the neighborhood.  The U.S. strategy of bringing all the regional parties together to pressure Pyongyang may also eventually have an echo effect on Washington as well.


In conclusion, the outcome of the North Korean nuclear crisis cannot be predicted.  A radical rupture through rapid regime change in the North and/or armed conflict is unlikely, although until the crisis is defused it cannot be ruled out completely.  Convergence of all the powers in the region around an evolutionary, multilateral solution is more likely, although certainly not assured.  Muddling through without any clear solution to the crisis is most likely in the short term.  However, inaction does not mean no change.  If nothing is done, North Korea will eventually develop and deploy nuclear weapons.  That outcome would in the long run slow and perhaps even reverse the quarter century trend of regional convergence.  Such an outcome might be called divergence through inaction.



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