January 20, 2007

January 20, 2007 | Commentary on Asia

Six parties, sixfold problems

Although the resumption last month of the six-party talks on the North Korea nuclear program postponed further confrontation and lowered regional tensions, it did nothing to resolve irreconcilable differences that will continue to plague the negotiations.

Because none of the parties appear poised to alter their strategies significantly, the six-party talks are unlikely to defuse the nuclear crisis. Even if the contentious economic-sanctions issue is resolved during bilateral meetings next week between US and North Korean officials, it merely returns the participants to earlier stalemates over the scope and sequencing of benefits for North Korea abandoning its nuclear-weapons programs and a requisite verification regime.

North Korea's options are dwindling and a failure to achieve strategic objectives would eventually lead it to resume threats and high-risk confrontational tactics, which the United States and Japan would use to justify more punitive United Nations resolutions. North Korean leader Kim Jong-il will be emboldened to risk confrontation, believing that the administration of US President George W Bush lacks a military option because of the proximity of Seoul to the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas, the worsening security situation in Iraq, overextended US military forces, and a potential face-off with Iran.

Similarly, the Bush administration sees itself as having the advantage, based on North Korea's deteriorating economic conditions and an assessment that the regime wouldn't risk triggering a confrontation that could cause its own collapse.

The US will rely predominantly on China to force North Korea to abandon its nuclear-weapons and missile programs, but Beijing will remain unable or unwilling to pressure Pyongyang significantly. Despite undertaking a more activist role to resolve the nuclear impasse, China will remain averse to confronting its recalcitrant neighbor for fear of provoking further escalatory behavior or triggering regime instability. Kim will use Chinese reluctance to confront Pyongyang as a way to undercut the Bush administration's hardline policy and deflect attempts to impose punitive measures.

US policy toward North Korea is unlikely to be affected significantly by either the Democratic Party's takeover of Congress or the departure of defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Despite the heated rhetoric between Democrats and the Bush administration, there has been little difference over the broad parameters of North Korean policy, with the principal distinction being a greater Democratic willingness to engage Pyongyang in bilateral discussions and to return to nuclear negotiations without precondition.

There has been strong bipartisan agreement in the US on the need for North Korea to abandon its nuclear-weapons programs and illicit activities, as well as to improve its human-rights record. Democratic criticism will likely be muted if the Bush administration is perceived as engaging in a good-faith effort during resumed nuclear negotiations, since the new Congress will be primarily focused on Iraq and domestic policies.

The selection of former director of central intelligence Robert Gates to replace Rumsfeld as defense secretary generated speculation that Bush would pursue a less ideologically driven foreign policy. But Gates was seen as a conservative during his tenure at the Central Intelligence Agency and as deputy national security adviser. Although he advocated dialogue with the Soviet Union, he underscored the need for diplomatic resolve and strong verification measures. Gates has, however, backtracked from earlier statements that he made after departing the government that advocated military strikes on North Korea.

The US-South Korean relationship will remain troubled throughout 2007. Despite efforts by Presidents Bush and Roh Moo-hyun to portray the strength of the alliance, the two countries will continue to pursue diametrically opposed foreign policies. US officials, skeptical of Roh since his embrace of anti-US rhetoric during the 2002 presidential election in South Korea, will continue to regard Seoul as a hindrance to US efforts to present a united front to compel the North to redress international concerns over its nuclear programs, abysmal rights record, and illicit activities.

The US will be unable to persuade South Korea to punish the North, which Seoul perceives as undermining inter-Korean relations and forcing the North into further escalatory acts. The Roh administration will continue to rebuff Washington's requests to cancel the Gaesong and Kumgangsan joint economic ventures and increase its involvement in the Proliferation Security Initiative.

Seoul remains concerned that an extended nuclear crisis would degrade foreign investor confidence and further weaken South Korea's sluggish economic recovery. Renewed regional tensions would make South Korea increasingly less attractive to investors, who would bypass the country to invest in other Asian opportunities.

South Korea will also remain hesitant to criticize the North for fear of jeopardizing its engagement policy. Although Roh's outreach to North Korea suffered decreasing public support after Pyongyang's missile launch and nuclear test last year, the policy still reflects a pervasive public perception that the North no longer poses a military threat. South Korean polls have consistently shown a more benign view of the North than in the past and a growing sense that Washington is to blame for the nuclear impasse.

Roh's controversial push to regain wartime command of South Korean military forces from the United States exacerbated tensions with Washington last year. Despite entreaties from former South Korean defense ministers and generals that the policy risked degrading the country's defensive capabilities, Roh will not be deterred from his quest, which reflects his long-held belief in the necessity of implementing foreign and security policies that are more independent from the US. He is also driven by concerns that the US strategic-flexibility military strategy, in which US Forces Korea could be redeployed elsewhere in Asia, would embroil South Korea in a Sino-US confrontation over Taiwan.

There is also a potential risk of a resurgence of anti-Americanism during South Korea's presidential election campaign. Although most candidates have vowed to improve relations with the US, trade disputes arising from ongoing negotiations for a bilateral free-trade agreement (FTA) could fuel nationalist emotions that could be exploited for electoral benefit. Although Roh and Bush have pledged their support for the negotiations, a US-South Korea FTA would touch on sensitive economic sectors in both countries.

Bruce Klingner is senior research fellow for Northeast Asia in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org) in Washington, DC.

About the Author

Bruce Klingner Senior Research Fellow, Northeast Asia
Asian Studies Center

Related Issues: Asia

First appeared in the Asia Times