Directing A Diplomatic Concert toward Pyongyang

The fog of preventive war in Iraq obscures an even more dangerous conflict in East Asia.

The fog of preventive war in Iraq obscures an even more dangerous conflict in East Asia. A nuclear crisis is upon us in North Korea. Taking advantage of America's preoccupation with the war with Saddam Hussein's regime, North Korea has accelerated its moves toward actual production of nuclear weapons, while continuing to demand bilateral negotiation with the U.S. as a pre-condition for standing down. Unwilling to reward what it sees as blackmail, the Bush Administration insists that a multilateral negotiating environment is the most secure way to ensure and verify the dismantling of Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program. The U.S. should initiate more proactive diplomacy, for time is rapidly running out. 

America's firm engagement in Asia-in particular, leading the way in the formation of an ad hoc concert of powers-is required to resolve the threat of nuclear conflict in the Korean Peninsula. What follows is an outline of my proposal. First, though, a word is in order about why I argue for a concert of powers to tackle the problem of North Korea. It is not only a question of not wishing to reward bad behavior. More seriously, it is because direct Washington-Pyongyang negotiations will open the way for a non-aggression pact between the U.S. and North Korea that could result in the withdrawal of American troops from the peninsula. This would have two consequences. First, it would surely destroy the Washington-Seoul alliance; second and relatedly, it would trigger a power vacuum that could result in the strategic rivalry between China and Japan. While obviously not in my country's national interests, I see no way in which it could serve those of the U.S. and other powers either. 

A concert of powers approach is needed because East Asia bears striking similarity to 19th century Europe. For example, the region is awash in a rising tide of nationalism and its rules of conduct are based on classic Realpolitik balance-of-power scenarios. Each power's strategy is dynamically influenced by the strategic rhetoric and actions of the others. So while the U.S. prevails as the dominant power, spending more than the defense expenditures of all other powers combined, China, Japan and Russia, along with the two Koreas, remain crucial players on the regional chessboard. The U.S. openly pursues a strategy of "offensive realism," seeking to preempt the emergence of traditional rival powers or the new threats emanating from rogue states in possession of weapons of mass destruction or suspected of involvement with terrorism. In East Asia the other extra-peninsular powers are adjusting in various ways to this reality. China is conspicuously pursuing a strategy of "classical realism" with a twist, combined as it is with a sense of "assertive nationalism" that accompanies Beijing's sense that the country is becoming a rising political and military power. Japan, faced with its profound sense of "wounded nationalism" arising from having experienced a "lost decade" of almost no growth at all, is pursuing "defensive realism," as demonstrated by its grudging diplomatic support of the war with Iraq so as not to shake the foundations of its alliance with the U.S. Lastly, Russia is practicing "opportunistic realism" as a way to manage her imperial decline.  

Unlike Europe the status quo of East Asian borders is not accepted. As a result, several territorial disputes simmer beneath the surface, like a snake in shallow swamp. While the division of the Korean peninsula and the threatening nature of North Korea's nuclear posture remain the twin pillars of instability in the region, we have also the Taiwan Strait problem, the disputed Northern Territories off of Hokkaido and the conflicting claims involving islands in the South China Sea between China and other southeast Asian countries. 

And yet East Asia has no institutional framework such as the EU or the OSCE, nor does it have a collective security infrastructure such as NATO, within which such disputes could be handled amicably. The legacy of inter-state partnership is weak while that of confrontation strong. Recent attempts at forming "co-operative security" and economic interdependence arrangements (ASEAN, APEC and ASEAN+3) remain "talk shops." In this strategic environment, the prospect for Asian security depends, in the short run, on the future of the North Korean problem, and, in the long run, on the future of Sino-Taiwanese relations. 

I will confine myself here to a consideration of the former. After "Operation Iraqi Freedom" is successful, the U.S. is likely to shift its primary focus to Asia. This would be most welcome. An increased American military presence ought to dampen the possibility of an outbreak of open rivalry and confrontation in the region and reaffirm that American security guarantees underwrite the region's stability and its remarkable economic growth. To illustrate this point, let me quickly sketch what would likely happen were America to disengage militarily from Asia. The race to fill the power vacuum would be won by either a Japan forced to nuclearize quickly or emboldened ready-to-expand China. Either way this would certainly intensify regional rivalries in degree and in kind, and, at the very least, heat up the arms race.