Chain Reaction on the Korean Peninsula

Japan's Diplomacy in Critical Test

North Korea is again resorting to the “nuclear card’’ to shake up the United States. Washington is countering this by applying various kinds of international pressure, such as taking the matter to the United Nations Security Council and having nations concerned adopt a policy of “containment’’ of North Korean missiles.

As things stand now, economic sanctions against North Korea are a very strong possibility. U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has indicated Washington’s readiness to take on North Korea and Iraq at the same time. In reality, however, the United States is too occupied with Iraq to go to war with North Korea. A senior U.S. official told me off the record that Washington and Pyongyang will eventually talk.

When President Kim Dae-jung of South Korea visited U.S. President George W. Bush shortly after the latter was sworn in, Bush told Kim he supported the “Sunshine Policy” but distrusted Kim Jong Il. Kim replied that he did not trust the North Korean leader either, but he believed North and South must coexist as neighbors.

This is a shared dilemma for Japan, South Korea, and the United States, and there is no escaping it if Japan is to maintain its policy of engagement with North Korea and normalize ties. Going to war with North Korea is not an option.

So how should Japan proceed? For one, Japan must cooperate more closely than ever with the United States and South Korea on security matters.

During the North Korean nuclear threat in the early 1990s, the three nations somehow managed to stop Pyongyang’s self-isolation. The 1994 Washington-Pyongyang Agreed Framework led to the establishment of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO), and eventually to the Trilateral Coordination and Oversight Group (TCOG).

But there are inherent tensions among the three partners over North Korea. The administration of Roh Moo-hyun is to be inaugurated in Seoul in February, but a rift is becoming apparent between South Korea and the United States over their respective North Korea policies. Washington supports the normalization of Tokyo-Pyongyang ties, but is also nervous about it. When Bush heard about [Japanese] Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s decision to visit Pyongyang, he was overheard noting that Koizumi was a “good guy’’ but also an “oddball.’’

Pyongyang is busy with its strategic acrobatics that are calculated to widen the cracks in the tripartite relationship. This is all the more reason why the three partners must reaffirm and consolidate their common policy. Perhaps the TCOG should be upgraded to the Cabinet ministers’ level. But even then, the talks should not be limited to immediate issues but rather focus on long-term strategic discussions: redefine the functions of the Japan-U.S. and South Korea-U.S. alliances to make them more effective, and coordinate matters pertaining to the U.S. military capabilities and bases in the region.

The North Korean problem is rendered complicated by the fact that even though all parties are ostensibly in support of maintaining the current Kim regime, everyone is actually jockeying for a position of influence in anticipation of the collapse of Kim’s rule and eventual Korean unification. An anti-American sentiment is surging in South Korea, in counterpoint to the growing suspicions in America about South Korea’s future intentions. In a way, this phenomenon foreshadows an eventual power struggle between the United States and China over the Korean Peninsula and what may become of the alliances after the Korean unification.

But Japan, South Korea, and the United States must turn the present nuclear crisis to their own advantage and reinforce their security cooperation to pre-establish long-term security on the Korean Peninsula.

Another thing Japan should do is explore how best to “revive’’ KEDO. In retaliation for North Korea’s continuation of its nuclear weapons development program, the United States in December suspended its heavy oil supply promised under the 1994 agreement. If this situation continues, KEDO will simply fall apart. But supplying energy to North Korea is not KEDO’s only task. As an organization to keep North Korea politically engaged, KEDO provides a multilateral framework for the maintenance of security on the Korean Peninsula. Handled properly, KEDO could be quite useful.

On the premise that Pyongyang agreed to throw out its nuclear program, China and Russia should participate anew in KEDO, so that a more powerful international agency could  be created to support North Korea’s energy needs. The new organization could be named KEDO II.

This must never come across as a “reward’’ for North Korea’s violation of the 1994 agreement. I stress that North Korea must first promise to end its nuclear program. And only after this has been confirmed by Japan, South Korea, the United States, Russia, and China, should the energy aid begin.

Russia supports the Kim regime and KEDO’s continuation. This is all the more reason for Russia to participate directly in the program and supply its heavy oil to North Korea.

China has been helping North Korea with its own food and energy aid program. Now is the time for China to  go the extra distance to help create  a multilateral framework for the  denuclearization of the Korean Penin-sula. If China is agreeable to this, security cooperation among the United States, Japan, and South Korea could proceed in tandem with China’s cooperation. This should help “civilize’’ the process of international politics over the Korean Peninsula and prevent the process from turning into a raw power game among the big nations.

Lately, China has become increasingly critical of North Korea. A researcher at a Chinese think tank told me: “Beijing is deeply upset with Kim Jong Il for his nuclear development and the creation of special regions near the Chinese border. Beijing has had enough of Kim’s waywardness.’’ Washington is hopeful that thanks to the new “post-9/11’’ China-U.S. relationship, the Chinese leadership might persuade Pyongyang to shape up.

The upgrading of KEDO to KEDO II ultimately hinges on how North Korea’s “brinkmanship diplomacy’’ turns out—namely, whether Pyongyang will give up its “nuclear card.’’

Japan must bear firmly in mind that the North Korean nuclear and missile threats are direct threats to Japan’s  security—an awareness everyone felt acutely when Nodong and Taepodong missiles were fired in Japan’s direction in 1993 and 1998, respectively. Chief Cabinet Secretary Mikio Aoki said in December 1999, “If missile defense is purely defensive and if this is absolutely the only alternative open to Japan, then Japan would be perfectly within its right as a pacifist nation to develop a system on its own.’’ Japan should start looking into legal and operational issues and continue research to determine an optimum system for the nation, not excluding the introduction of the Patriot system as an option. Diplomacy is about seeking to normalize ties with North Korea while reinforcing the nation’s defense system.

The most important thing for Japan now is to muster its diplomatic skills. Along with security talks with North Korea, Japan should also try “quiet diplomacy’’ to help the United States and North Korea communicate more accurately. Now that Japan has resumed normalization talks with North Korea, the process must never be wasted. Even though the abduction issue [North Korea has admitted to having abducted Japanese citizens in the 1970s and ’80s —WPR] must be resolved for the relationship to be completely normal, Japan’s top priority is not the abduction issue, but the life-and-death security issue of North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats.

Does Japan have the will and ability to be a player in the creation of the future of Northeast Asia? Japan’s foreign policy is being tested now.