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WebMemo #787 on Asia

July 8, 2005

Rice's Trip to Asia: Seeking Coordination on North Korea

By

On July 8, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will depart for a five-day whirlwind trip through China, Thailand, South Korea, and Japan. During her visits to the three Northeast Asian capitals, Rice will likely seek to improve coordination before the Six-Party Talks to resolve North Korea's nuclear situation resume, most likely sometime in the next month. This is an important effort. Bringing the five allied countries-or at least the United States, Japan, and South Korea-together to a unified stance against North Korea's nuclear programs is essential if the Talks are to succeed.

 

The Talks-with United States, China, Japan, South Korea, North Korea, and Russia-have been stalled since the third round met last June, when a U.S.-led proposal for Pyongyang to dismantle its nuclear weapons program went unanswered. Since then, North Korea has escalated tensions by declaring itself a nuclear power, removing plutonium fuel rods from its facility in Yongbyon for reprocessing, and hinting that it may be preparing for a nuclear weapons test.

 

With the inability of the Six-Party Talks to halt these developments, criticism of the process itself has increased. Yet this multilateral effort to resolve the issue diplomatically remains the best option available and could succeed if certain weaknesses can be overcome. A major weakness has been the lack of credible unity in the five parties' stance against North Korea's actions, despite the official position that they all unequivocally oppose the presence of nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula. Now that Pyongyang has signaled its interest in returning to the negotiating table, the United States must work to create a unified strategy to dismantle North Korea's nuclear programs permanently. To that end, the United States should focus its efforts on solidifying the underlying anchor of the Six-Party process, its alliances with South Korea and Japan.

 

Attaining a strong and unified trilateral stance with Tokyo and Seoul on ending North Korea's nuclear weapons programs would send a critical message not only to Pyongyang, but also to Beijing that it should do more to press North Korea. Without such coordination, the Six Party process is unlikely to produce any concrete results because North Korea will continue to "divide and conquer" the other five countries. In order to strengthen coordination with two of America's strongest allies, Japan and South Korea, Secretary Rice should consider these tasks for her visit to Asia.

 

  • In both Tokyo and Seoul, Secretary Rice should discuss concrete measures that will be taken should Pyongyang continue to delay its participation in the Six Party talks or refuse to respond to the proposal outstanding since last June. Consequences for Pyongyang's obfuscation should be clearly articulated, such as the possibility of a UN resolution and sanctions.
     
  • Secretary Rice should urge Tokyo and Seoul to develop closer dialogue on security issues, including those beyond a nuclear North Korean, such as combating regional proliferation and defending against terrorism. Washington can support this process by reviving the Trilateral Coordination and Oversight Group (TCOG) process. In addition, Japan and South Korea should be encouraged to pursue dialogue to move beyond the tensions over historical issues that have flared in recent months. While the United States should not become directly involved in historical disputes, it can and should urge resolution, so as eliminate a weakness that could be exploited by Pyongyang.
     
  • Secretary Rice should provide assurances that U.S. goals in the region are consistent with those of its allies: most broadly, the continuation of peace, stability, and economic prosperity in the region. President Bush has repeatedly expressed his commitment to finding a diplomatic solution to the nuclear issue, and efforts to muster cooperation for the next round of Six-Party Talks support this resolve. Unfortunately, suspicion lingers in the region about Washington's goal for regime change in North Korea. But Secretary Rice should make clear that America's desire for regime change is compatible with South Korea's stated policy of seeking gradual regime transformation in the North, and that Seoul, not Washington, should take the lead in efforts to engage Pyongyang.
     
  • Finally, Secretary Rice should convey concerns over widespread South Korean misperceptions that Washington is somehow responsible for the current impasse with North Korea. The South Korean leadership should be encouraged to do more to identify Pyongyang's responsibility for the lack of progress and to promote Seoul's stance, which is closely aligned with Washington's. Failure to set the record straight would only strengthen Pyongyang's position and undermine an important lever of the Six-Party process: to isolate North Korea.

Secretary Rice's trip to Asia comes at a critical juncture in resolving the North Korean nuclear issue. Her active engagement of three of the most critical players in the Six-Party Talks will go far to muster their cooperation and create positive momentum as the next round of talks approaches. It is clear that the Talks will not go on forever, and in order to bring finality to the process and end North Korea's nuclear program, the five parties must show firm and unwavering resolve.

Balbina Y. Hwang is Policy Analyst for Northeast Asia in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

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