Tag: North Korea

Thursday Links

Who Should Defuse the Korean Bomb?

Fear of war has become a new constant for the Korean peninsula.  On Monday South Korea initiated a military exercise in the Yellow Sea and North Korea threatened to retaliate.  Seoul went ahead without any response from the North, but the region retains the feel of a bomb with an unstable fuse.

In the short term Washington has no choice but to uphold its alliance obligations to the South.  However, Pyongyang’s increasingly erratic behavior offers a dramatic reminder of the most important cost of the unilateral security guarantee:  the threat of war.

The alliance was created at a different time in a different world—1953, after the conclusion of a war which had devastated the peninsula.  Only U.S. military support preserved South Korea’s independence.  Since then the South has developed economically and is well able to protect itself.  The U.S. should begin turning over defense responsibilities to Seoul, with an expeditious withdrawal of all American troops.  The defense treaty, with America’s promise to forever guard the South, irrespective of circumstance, should be turned into a framework for future cooperation in cases of mutual interest.

The U.S. no longer can afford to maintain Cold War alliances as if the Cold War still existed.  Commitments like that to South Korea are expensive, since they drive America’s military budget.  More important, as we see in Northeast Asia, alliances also increase the possibility of war for the U.S.  It is time to update America’s military commitments to reflect today’s world.

Beijing Key in Controlling North Korea’s Recklessness

Shortly after unveiling a new uranium enrichment facility, North Korea has shelled a disputed island held by the Republic of Korea.  A score of South Koreans reportedly were killed or wounded.

These two steps underscore the North’s reputation for recklessness.  Unfortunately, there is no easy solution: serious military retaliation risks full-scale war, while intensified sanctions will have no impact without China’s support.

Instead, the U.S. should join with the ROK in an intensive diplomatic offensive in Beijing.  So far China has assumed that the Korean status quo is to its advantage.  However, Washington and Seoul should point out that Beijing has much to lose if things go badly in North Korea.

The North is about to embark on a potentially uncertain leadership transition.  North Koreans remain impoverished; indeed, malnutrition reportedly is spreading.  With the regime apparently determined to press ahead with its nuclear program while committing regular acts of war against the South, the entire peninsula could go up in flames.  China would be burned, along with the rest of North Korea’s neighbors.

The U.S. also should inform Beijing that Washington might choose not to remain in the middle if the North continues its nuclear program.  Given the choice of forever guaranteeing South Korean and Japanese security against an irresponsible North Korea, or allowing those nations to decide on their own defense, including possible acquisition of nuclear weapons, the U.S. would seriously consider the latter.  Then China would have to deal with the consequences.

Beijing’s best option would be to join with the U.S. and South Korea in offering a package deal for denuclearization, backed by effective sanctions, meaning the cut-off of Chinese food and energy assistance.  Otherwise, Beijing might find itself sharing in a future North Korean nightmare.

Time for a Diplomatic Presence in Pyongyang

Jimmy Carter is off in North Korea again.  He’s supposed to bring home 31-year-old Aijalon Mahli Gomes, a Boston resident who was arrested in January for illegally crossing into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea from China.

Obviously Kim Jong-il believes that allowing such high-profile rescue missions provides some propaganda value.  Former President Bill Clinton visited for a similar reason last year.  The little advantage that Kim gets from trying to appear magnanimous is a reasonable price to pay for winning the release of imprisoned Americans.

But the strange spectacle of regularly sending unofficial representatives to Pyongyang suggests that it is time to establish diplomatic ties.  The North Koreans undoubtedly would try to present that as a great victory, but it would be an opportunity for Washington to gain an advantage.

If there’s any hope of negotiations getting anywhere over the North’s nuclear program—I’m skeptical, to put it mildly—offering this form of official respect might prove helpful.  More important, opening even a small diplomatic mission in the DPRK would provide the U.S. with a window, however opaque, into the modern “Hermit Kingdom” as well as give North Korean officials occasional contact with Americans.

And having a channel of official communication would be helpful the next time an American wanders across the Yalu River into the North.  You don’t have to like a regime to deal with it.  The DPRK exists.  It’s time to acknowledge that diplomatically.

Jimmy Carter’s presidency was nothing to celebrate.  But he’s used his retirement to do good, as Mr. Gomes likely would attest.  We should use the former president’s trip as an opportunity to open official ties with the North.

Monday Links

Korea’s New ‘Berlin Wall’

Between 1961 and 1989 East Germany distinguished itself by routinely killing people seeking freedom.  Roughly one thousand people died trying to get over the Berlin Wall and similar barriers along the rest of the border between the two Germanies.

North Korea is following suit.  With anger apparently running high after a currency swap seemingly designed to seize what little wealth people had accumulated privately, the government of Kim Jong-il has instructed its border guards to shoot anyone attempting to flee what amounts to one giant prison camp.

Reports the Associated Press:

North Korea has ordered its border guards to open fire on anyone who crosses its border without permission, in what could be an attempt to thwart defections by people disgruntled over its recent currency reform, a news report said Saturday.

The National Defense Commission — the top government body headed by North Korean leader Kim Jong Il — recently instructed soldiers to kill unauthorized border crossers on the spot, South Korea’s mass-circulation Chosun Ilbo newspaper said, citing unidentified sources inside the North.

It said the order could be an attempt by the communist government to stop members of North Korea’s middle class who are angry over suddenly being deprived of their money from leaving the country.

This horrid system can’t end soon enough.

Bush v. Obama on Diplomacy

The Hill’s Congress blog has a regular series that provides policy experts a forum to discuss current topics of the day. This week, the editors posed this question:

President Obama has taken a very different approach to diplomacy than President Bush. Does the new approach serve or undermine long-term U.S. interests?

My response:

What “very different approach?” Sure, President Bush implicitly scorned diplomacy in favor of toughness, particularly in his first term. But he sought UN Security Council authorization for tougher measures against Iraq; a truly unilateral approach would have bombed first and asked questions later. By the same token, President Obama has staffed his administration with people, including chief diplomat Hillary Clinton and UN Ambassador Susan Rice, who favored military action against Iraq and Serbia in 1998 and 1999, respectively, and were undeterred by the UNSC’s refusal to endorse either intervention.

There are other similarities. George Bush advocated multilateral diplomacy with North Korea, despite his stated antipathy for Kim Jong Il. President Obama supports continued negotiations with the same odious regime that starves its own people. Bush administration officials met with the Iranians to discuss post-Taliban Afghanistan and post-Saddam Iraq. In the second term, President Bush even agreed in principle to high-level talks on Iran’s nuclear program. President Obama likewise believes that the United States and Iran have a number of common interests, and he favors diplomacy over confrontation.

This continuity shouldn’t surprise us. Both men operate within a political environment that equates diplomacy with appeasement, without most people really understanding what either word means. Defined properly, diplomacy is synonymous with relations between states. As successive generations have learned the high costs and dubious benefits of that other form of international relations – war – most responsible leaders are rightly eager to engage in diplomacy. Perhaps the greater concern is that they feel the need to call it something else.