The Bush Administration, the North Korean Nuclear Crisis, and the Future of Multilateralism in Northeast Asia


Dennis Florig

Hanyang University Graduate School of Asia Pacific Studies

Seoul, South Korea



I. U.S. Hegemony and the Tension between Multilateralism and Unilateralism in U.S. Foreign Policy


The United 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 international conduct.


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.[1] 


Unilateralism, Multilateralism, and American Exceptionalism


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. 


Huntington 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.[2]


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 nations.[3]


Wilson 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.[4]


In Wilson¡¯s 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.[5]


Wilson¡¯s 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 allow U.S. 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.[6]


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 participants.  American 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.[7]


Bush Administration Foreign Policy after September 11


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 Trade Center, drew broad international support and participation of most of America¡¯s key allies. 


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.  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 militant Islamicist groups mushroomed.


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.


The United 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.[8]


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.

America 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 him.[9]

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.



II. U.S. Hegemony and Multilateralism in East Asia


American Hegemony in East Asia


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, post-Soviet Russia 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, like Russia, 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 and Singapore live side-by-side with relatively poor countries like Indonesia or Vietnam, 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.[10]


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. hegemony.


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 and Japan¡¯s 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 Korea.  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.[11]


Ikenberry sees American unilateralism as dangerous.


America¡¯s 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.[12]


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.[13]


Acharya sees 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.


Kupchan 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.[14]


Kupchan argues 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.[15] 


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 Asia.  In 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 crisis.

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."[16] 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 Americans.[17]

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.  North Korea 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 Korea, Japan, 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 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.  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 Korea


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 developed.  Pyongyang 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 even occur. 


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. 


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 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. 


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.



VI. Conclusion


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 Northeast Asia.


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 and Afghanistan 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 history.


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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[1] Dunne, Michael, ¡°US Foreign Relations in the Twentieth Century: From World Power to Global Hegemony,¡± International Affairs, vol 76, no 1, 2000

[2] Huntington, Samuel, ¡°The Lonely Superpower,¡± Foreign Affairs, vol 78, no 2, Mar-Apr 1999

[3] Arthur S. Link, et al., eds.  The Papers of Woodrow Wilson (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1966-1993)

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid.

[6] Harding, Warren, ¡°Inaugural Address,¡±

[7] Huntington, op. cit.

[8] Bush, George W., The National Security Strategy of the United States of America,

[9] Bush, George W., ¡°2003 State of the Union Address,¡±

[10] Huntington, Samuel, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), Mahathir, Mohamad and Shintar Ishihara, The Voice of Asia (Tokyo, Kodansha Intl, 1995), Deng, Yong, "The Asianization of East Asian Security and the United States' Role," East Asia: An International Quarterly, Autumn, 1998, and Narramore, Terry, "Coming to Terms with Asia in Discourses of Asia-Pacific Regional Security," Australian Journal of Political Science, July 1998 vol 33, no 2

[11] Ikenberry, G. John, ¡°America¡¯s Imperial Ambition,¡± Foreign Affairs, vol 81, no 5, Sep-Oct 2002

[12] ibid.

[13] Haass, Richard, ¡°What to do with American Primacy,¡± Foreign Affairs, vol 78, no 5, Sep-Oct 1999

[14] Kupchan, Charles, ¡°After Pax Americana: Benign Power, Regional Integration, and the Sources of a Stable Multipolarity,¡± International Security, vol 23, no 2, Fall 1998

[15] ibid.

[16] Nathan, Andrew and Robert Ross, The Great Wall and the Empty Fortress, W.W. Norton, 1997

[17] Gurtov, Mel and Byong-Moo Hwang, China¡¯s Security, Lynne Rienner, 1998