Bush Administration, the North Korean Nuclear Crisis, and the Future of
Multilateralism in Northeast
School of Asia
Hegemony and the Tension between Multilateralism and Unilateralism in U.S.
States occupies a unique position in the international
system. As hegemon,
the U.S. has
the greatest stake in the existing order.
Yet it also takes advantage of its position as the most powerful nation
in the world to bend that order to its will and even act outside the limits of
the system. American hegemony is
based on a global system of alliances and multilateral institutions. Yet the U.S.
has always set itself above these institutions as the sole righteous judge of
Dunne argues that the widely held
belief that American foreign policy has long been characterized by a
contradiction between international involvement and isolationist sentiment is largely
a myth. The real tension in
American foreign policy has always been between multilateralism and
Unilateralism, Multilateralism, and
American leaders tend to see the U.S.
as the creator of world order, a giver of law to an anarchic and even sinful
world. Yet at the same time much of
the American foreign policy elite has always seen the U.S.
as an exceptional nation, above and beyond the misguided, corrupt practices of
undemocratic, unjust international politics.
points out that American foreign policy makers are driven by beliefs that the U.S.
is a uniquely benign force in international politics
They boast of American power and
American virtue, hailing the United States
as a benevolent hegemon. They lecture other countries on the
universal validity of American principles, practices, and institutions (and
boast) of the success of the American economy as a model for others.
Ironically, despite the crucial role
democracy plays in American rhetoric, this American self-image produces a
foreign policy that is the antithesis of democracy. The U.S.
acts more like a divine absolute king—a giver of the law and self-declared paragon
of righteousness who because of his very power and self-righteousness feels
above and beyond the law that he gives to his subjects.
Woodrow Wilson, the early 20th
century father of American multilateralism and the visionary who sought to
create international law and order, saw the U.S. as not only increasingly powerful
but specially blessed, a nation
destined to set a responsible example
to all the world of what free government is and can do for the maintenance of
right standards, both national and international¡¦the light of the world (who leads)
the world in the assertion of the rights of peoples and the rights of free
thought the unique American experience provided a model for the entire world. He believed America¡¯s founders
set up a standard to which they intended that the nations of the world
should rally. They said to the people of the world, "Come to us, this is
the home of liberty; this is the place where mankind can learn how to govern
their own affairs . . . and the world did come to us. . . . They have looked to
us for leadership.
brand of multilateralism the rest of the world was to be remodeled itself in
the American image. Wilson¡¯s
faith in the U.S.
was truly religious. He claimed
that the American forces in Europe in World War I were
driven by a religious vision
They saw a citadel¡¦where dwelt the
oracles of God himself¡¦There were never crusaders that went to the Hold
Land in the old ages¡¦that were more
truly devoted to a holy cause.
successor Harding, usually characterized as an isolationist, actually also
believed in a leading role for the U.S.
in international affairs. However,
he and fellow Republicans who had blocked U.S.
participation in the League of Nations were
unilateralists. They would not
freedom of action to be bound by any emerging global order.
We recognize the new order in the
world, with the closer contacts which progress has wrought...But America¡¦can
enter into no political commitments¡¦which will subject our decisions to any
other than our own authority.
Every commitment must be made in the
exercise of our national sovereignty. Since freedom impelled, and independence
inspired, and nationality exalted, a world supergovernment
is contrary to everything we cherish and can have no sanction by our Republic.
During the Cold War, the historic
compromise of this American ambivalence about its role in the world became a
peculiarly American brand of multilateralism. The U.S.
led construction of multilateral alliances and institutions but demanded that
these alliances and institutions be extensions of U.S.
foreign policy rather than truly democratic expressions of the will of all the
multilateralism in the service of hegemony means that when allies and
international institutions resist American policies, the U.S.
can slip into a more purely unilateralist approach.
Writing before the Bush presidency, before
the invasion of Iraq,
Huntington points out
American leaders claim to be speaking
on behalf of ¡°the international community.¡± But¡¦on issue after issue, the United
States has found itself increasingly alone, with one or a few partners,
opposing most of the rest of the world¡¯s states and peoples.
Bush Administration Foreign Policy after
The contradictions of American foreign
policy have sharpened after September 11 as the Bush administration at least
temporarily has turned to a more unilateralist approach to the world. Conservative skepticism about the
effectiveness of international institutions and distaste for foreign governments
has been reinforced by a sense the U.S.
has to fend for itself in a newly dangerous world. At first, the wave of sympathy for the U.S.
in the wake of the tragedy encouraged America¡¯s
multilateralist tendencies. The invasion of Afghanistan,
which had been a key center of indoctrination and training of terrorists like
those who attacked the Pentagon and the World
drew broad international support and participation of most of America¡¯s
In East Asia,
the early effect of the September 11 attack was to further American hegemony. 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.
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 militant Islamicist groups
However, the new Bush Doctrine of
preemption of perceived threats has proven more controversial. In his national security strategy
statement Bush asserts
Given the goals of rogue states and
terrorists, the United States
can no longer solely rely on a reactive posture as we have in the past. The
inability to deter a potential attacker, the immediacy of today¡¯s threats, and
the magnitude of potential harm that could be caused by our adversaries¡¯ choice
of weapons, do not permit that option.
We cannot let our enemies strike first.
States has long maintained the option of
preemptive actions to counter a sufficient threat to our national security. The
greater the threat, the greater is the risk of inaction— and the more
compelling the case for taking anticipatory action to defend ourselves, even if
uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy¡¯s attack. To
forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United
States will, if necessary, act preemptively.
In his 2003 State of the Union address
Bush applied this doctrine to justify the upcoming invasion of Iraq,
despite the lack of a clear connection between Saddam Hussein¡¯s regime and
terror against the U.S.
or the West.
is making a broad and determined effort to confront these dangers¡¦In all these
efforts, however, America's
purpose is more than to follow a process -- it is to achieve a result: the end
of terrible threats to the civilized world. All free nations have a stake in
preventing sudden and catastrophic attacks. And we're asking them to join us,
and many are doing so. Yet the course of this nation does not depend on the
decisions of others. Whatever
action is required, whenever action is necessary, I will defend the freedom and
security of the American people¡¦We will consult. But let there be no
misunderstanding: If Saddam Hussein does not fully disarm, for the safety of
our people and for the peace of the world, we will lead a coalition to disarm
The Bush Doctrine and the subsequent invasion
of Iraq has drawn widespread global opposition, expressed not only by Arab and
Islamic states, but also by key American allies such as Germany and France, as
well as by Russia, China, and many other East Asian nations and peoples. The Bush administration doctrine of
pre-emption of potential terrorism makes many East Asian nations potential
targets of unilateral American action.
It remains to be seen just how far the
U.S. will push
this concept 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. Recently, in the
wake of the apparent debacle in Iraq
and the increasing estrangement of the U.S.
from its key allies, the Bush administration has taken a more multilateralist tone, seeking international support for
operations in Iraq
and opening six party talks on the North Korean nuclear issue. In the same State of the Union address
in which Bush called for war with Iraq whether sanctioned by the international
community or not, he also called for multilateral talks on the North Korea
problem, stating ¡°America is working with the countries in the region—South
Korea, Japan, China, and Russia—to find a peaceful solution.
Hegemony and Multilateralism in East Asia
American Hegemony in East
The end of the Cold War seemed to
confirm American hegemony, with the U.S.
left as the only superpower with no challenger to its primacy. In Europe,
and Eastern Europe scrambled to integrate with the EU
and join the western global system.
In East Asia, rapid economic growth and
integration has turned the region into a new pillar of the global economy. However, economic integration did not
end political tensions entirely as western cultural and institutional hegemony
clashed with ¡°Asian values.¡± Any
potential Japanese challenge to American hegemony faded in the 1990s as the
Japanese economy sank and the U.S.
rose to new heights. China
loomed as a long-term potential challenger to the U.S.
in East Asia, but China,
seemed much more preoccupied with successfully entering the global system than
with contesting its leadership.
Yet the rise of the East Asian region
and a growing, reformed China
do raise fundamental problems for U.S.
hegemony. Unlike post Cold War
Europe, East Asia is a sprawling diverse area with
massive internal conflicts and contradictions, a region where the international
rules and practices worked out in Europe and North
America are not fully in effect. Politically, culturally, and institutionally,
East Asia is not only significantly different from the
West, it is also much more diverse and fragmented than the western world. Historically, different nations have
been variously influenced by the diverse cultural traditions of Confucianism,
Buddhism, Islam, and shamanism/animism.
Rich countries like Japan
live side-by-side with relatively poor countries like Indonesia
with a whole range of nations at various intermediate levels of
development. While most nations
in the region are nominally capitalist and democratic, business practices around
the region vary widely from those of the West. Electoral institutions as well function
in a much different way in non-western political cultures. A distinct sense of difference felt by
many in East Asia has found expression in talk about
¡°Asian values¡± or an ¡°Asian way¡± of diplomacy, politics, and economics.
These diversities in culture, economic
development, and political systems between East Asian nations has generally
worked to the advantage of U.S.
power. American hegemony is more
easily preserved in a fragmented region.
However, at the same time perceptions of gaps between the U.S.
and a wide range of East Asian values and interests promotes the sense of
regional solidarity against U.S.
The Evolution of U.S.
Multilateralism in East Asia
During the Cold War the U.S.
pursued a kind of exclusive hegemonic multilateralism as it collected allies
against the Soviet Union and encouraged regional
anti-communist alliance systems such as NATO, SEATO, CENTO, and ANZUS. Japan
was the single most important U.S.
ally during the Cold War. In East
Asia, the U.S.
actually preferred a ¡°hub and spokes¡± approach; for example Japan
recently liberated colony South Korea
dealt directly with the U.S.
and not much with each other.
The rapid integration of East
Asia that was occurring just as the Cold War was winding down led
the U.S. to
accept a broader, more inclusive multilateralism. ASEAN was formed with little help from
the U.S., but
when movement for an exclusively East Asian regional formation appeared, the U.S.
quickly sought a more inclusive APEC.
APEC has served the U.S.
as a means to pressure for liberalization and westernization from within rather
than unilaterally from the outside.
Inclusive multilateralism harmonizes U.S.
policy with the approach of its key allies in the region, Japan
and South Korea,
who have pursued their own brand of multilateralism as a means of influence in
the region. Inclusive
multilateralism has even kept China,
the potential hegemonic rival, more interested in participation in a profitable
regional system than in challenging the existing order.
However, the Bush administration
doctrine of pre-emptive unilateralism, if applied to North
Korea or another East Asian crisis, would
put at risk all these gains. Allies
Japan and especially South Korea
are increasingly nervous at hard-line confrontation with North
The gap between Kim Dae Jung¡¯s sunshine policy
toward North Korea
and the Bush administration¡¯s hard line has already done serious damage to the
U.S.-South Korean alliance. China
can tolerate U.S.
unilateralism in other parts of the world, but not in East Asia,
in its backyard. The bodies of
multilateral cooperation that have been painstakingly built up over a
generation would be unlikely to stand the strain of unilateral U.S.
action on the Korean peninsula.
III. Potential Futures of U.S.
Hegemony and the Asia-Pacific Region
In the long run there are three possible
futures for U.S.
hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region.
In the short run the most likely outcome is that U.S.
hegemony can be reproduced, that the U.S.
will retain the primacy it has held in the region. But over the longer run the U.S.
may face a dilemma. It may have to
accept a new form of multilateralism that is more ¡°equilateral¡± with the growing
influence of China
and current regional powerhouse Japan. If rising Chinese power cannot be
accommodated, rivalry between the U.S.
and China could
trigger regional disintegration or repolarization.
American Unilateralism and the
Possibility of Regional Disintegration
Some analysts stress the dangers of
American unilateralism during the temporary window of American primacy. Ikenberry
argues that the Bush administration¡¯s early responses to September 11 depart
from historic American grand strategy.
He is concerned that this ¡°neoimperialism¡± is
unconstrained by the rules and norms
of the international community. At
the extreme, these notions form a neoimperial vision
in which the United States
arrogates to itself the global role of setting standards, determining threats,
using force, and meting out justice.
It is a vision in which sovereignty become more absolute for America
even as it becomes more conditional for countries that challenge Washington¡¯s
standards of internal and external behavior.
sees American unilateralism as dangerous.
nascent neoimperial grand strategy threatens to rend
the fabric of the international community and political partnerships precisely
at a time when that community and those partnerships are urgently needed¡¦It
will trigger antagonism and resistance that will leave America
in a more hostile and divided world.
Advocates of an American
Post-Hegemonic Strategy of Deepening Regionalism and Multilateralism
Some American analysts believe that
over the long run current American hegemony is unlikely to be sustained. This school recommends that the U.S.
use its current primacy to structure a peaceful, stable, open, multilateral
international system that will be conducive to American interests after
American hegemony has faded. Haass argues American foreign policy should persuade other centers
of power that
it is in their self-interest to
support constructive notions about how international society should be
organized and should operate¡¦(The U.S. should) encourage a multipolarity
characterized by cooperation and concert rather than competition and conflict.
a potential concert of Asia as a "managed
balance-of-power system.¡± He
delimits four principles that bound together the concert of Europe
that could serve as the basis for a similar system in East Asia:
1) multilateral consultations among the great powers, 2) agreement on
territorial stability, 3) a shared commitment to protect members of the
regional state system, and 4) equal status for the great powers.
argues an American strategy that recognizes the inevitable decline of hegemony would
encourage regional order. The U.S.
should cooperate with regional powers to overcome tendencies toward competitive
multipolarity in the key regions of the world system.
The United States should prepare for
the inevitable decline of its preponderance by encouraging the emergence of
regional(ism) in each of the world¡¯s three areas of industrial and military
power—North America, Europe, and East Asia.
that the current development of multilateral institutions in East
Asia falls far from a stable regional order. He believes that rather than emphasize
the U.S.-Japan security alliance as a check on China,
the U.S. should
encourage a consolidation of a Japan-China coalition as the core of a
cooperative East Asian region. He
believes that the current American attempt to preserve its hegemony rather than
accommodate these rising East Asian powers
stands in the way of the intraregional
integration needed to ensure stability in the aftermath of American
hegemony. East Asia
has a long way to go if it is to construct a consensual regional formation
capable of overcoming its dangerous multipolarity.
The six party talks now underway to
deal with the North Korean nuclear crisis might be the beginnings of the
formation of a concert of powerful regional nations that could provide regional
order and stability.
The Regional Powers,
U.S. Hegemony, and
Multilateralism in East Asia
Among the leading powers in the
region, the key to the development of a successful multilateral system is the
U.S.-China connection. Russia
and Japan, for
different reasons, are the most eager to play a role in multilateral
Asia-Pacific institutions. Russian power in the region has declined, but Russia
remains a factor. Multilateral bodies provide a way for residual Russian
military power to be translated into political influence at relatively low
cost. Multilateral systems allow Japan
to exercise influence in the behind the scenes mode it prefers. By letting the U.S.
take the leading role in their alliance, Japan
allays fears that it is seeking to revive her wartime empire. Multilateral
institutions in East Asia work even more effectively to
express Japanese interests while minimizing concerns about Japanese power. A central role in multilateral Asia-Pacific
institutions partially compensates for the long denied permanent seat on the UN
Security Council Japan
has so coveted.
Historically, China has
been the regional power most resistant to formal multilateralism in East
the past China
tended to view multilateralism as an attempt to rein in its rising power, as a
new, more sophisticated version of containment. However, China has
shown an increasing willingness to participate in multilateral institutions,
particularly when it has a role in shaping outcomes. China¡¯s
¡°new security doctrine¡± consciously seeks an ¡°Asian way¡± of multilateralism,
one not dominated by the U.S. and
the West. Although initially
resistant, China has
entered into a deepening dialogue in the ARF. It has signed various important
international arms control agreements on nuclear testing and non-proliferation of
chemical and biological weapons. Significantly, China took
the lead in forging multilateral accords with Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan,
which it touted as a "new model for safeguarding regional security." Perhaps most important, China has
been a leading force in the recent six party talks on the Korean nuclear
The fundamental problem of
multilateralism in East Asia is
the tension between the U.S.
desire to maintain its hegemony and a rising China
which seeks greater recognition for its power and interests. Nathan and Ross see the tension between
the U.S. and China as
"structural: an established power is attempting to induce a rising power
to comply with its preferred norms." Gurtov and Hwang concur
Chinese leaders keep stressing the
need for an equal partnership and respect for the PRC's
sovereignty, while U.S.
leaders insist that China play
by international rules that have been largely written and enforced by
Thoughts of deepening multilateralism
and the U.S. accepting
a long term decline in its power might appear out of phase with a Bush
administration acting unilaterally in Iraq
in a seeming assertion of ongoing American hegemony. Yet the Bush administration has adopted
a self-consciously multilateral approach to the North Korean nuclear problem,
perhaps in part in belated recognition that the U.S.
does not have the power to simply go it alone on too many issues. Whether the Bush administration
remains committed to multilateral negotiations on the Korean issue or falls
back to unilateralist preemption when encountering difficulties in negotiations
will shape the future of the Northeast Asian region.
IV. The North Korean Nuclear Crises
The North Korean nuclear crisis poses
a grave threat to regional stability.
is a charter member of Bush¡¯s ¡°axis of evil.¡± 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.
Yet the Bush administration has so far
remained cautious in dealing with North Korea. The other Northeast Asian nations, South
China, and Russia,
have all urged the U.S.
to negotiate and avoid the use of force.
The difficulties following unilateral action in Iraq
have highlighted the even higher costs and risks of military action on the Korean
Peninsula. The Bush administration has turned to
regional powers to step up the pressure on Pyongyang. But the other powers are also pressuring
the U.S. to
offer more to elicit concessions by the North.
History shows that negotiations could
defuse the crisis, although the issues remain thorny. The first North Korean nuclear crisis was
a serious danger to 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 mutual suspicions engendered by
the breakdown of the first agreement.
The Agreed Framework
The Agreed Framework negotiated in
1994 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
trade restrictions would be dropped, and the U.S.
would allow international institutions to lend support to the rickety North
The massive changes envisioned by the
Agreed Framework were slow to work out in practice. Talks on implementation were repeatedly
postponed and political relations between the North and the U.S.
remained far from normal. However, 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.
The Bush Administration and North
The Bush administration came to power
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
suspended international monitoring of its existing nuclear program and
threatened to reprocess its plutonium for weapons.
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
V. Other Regional 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 nations 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.
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
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
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
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.
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 much 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.
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.
The six party talks on the Korean
problem have made little progress, but they could eventually be the seed of a
new multilateralism on security issues in Northeast Asia. However, for this to occur, the U.S.
will have to pursue multilateralism as more than a tactic to pressure the
North, and embrace it as a strategy to forge a new security architecture in
The future of Northeast
Asia and U.S.
policy toward the region cannot be known.
There are too many variables affecting the region. The Bush administration remains focused
on the Iraq war
and the Islamic world.
Unfortunately, its policy toward Northeast Asia
has been largely derivative. First
it placed North Korea
in the ¡°axis of evil¡± speech primarily aimed at Iraq. It has since turned to a more regional, multilateralist tone on the Korean problem but more as a
tactic to pressure North Korea
than as a sustained approach to the region.
Despite its apparent unilateralism,
there are clearly contradictory tendencies in the Bush administration. September 11 strengthened the hands of
the neoconservatives itching to confront threats and transform the Islamic
world. The current difficulties in Iraq
as well as the looming election cycle may well strengthen the moderates and multilateralists.
Previous hard-line Republican presidents have been known to shift their
approach over time. In his
reelection year hard-line anti-communist Richard Nixon traveled to China
to toast with Mao Zedong and then flew to Moscow
to sign the first strategic arms limitation treaty. Author of the ¡°new cold war¡± and
opponent of all arms treaties Ronald Reagan became buddies with Gorbachev in
his second term, negotiating the most sweeping arms control agreements in
Basic questions remain for Bush or his
successor: 1. Is the U.S. ready to
put aside wishes for regime change and deal with North Korea as it really
is?, 2. What will the regional
powers do if North Korea is not ready to deal, if their siege mentality leads
them to prefer holding on to nuclear weapons rather than accepting international
guarantees of their security?, and 3. Is the U.S. more committed to preserving
its hegemonic position or more interested in creating a more equilateral
multilateral security architecture in Northeast Asia?
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