Wednesday, February 23, 2005

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North Korea zigs, North Korea zags

It appears that North Korea has changed its mind about walking away from six-party talks on its nuclear ambitions. Anna Fifield and Richard McGregor provide the following report in the Financial Times:

North Korea suddenly reversed its position on multilateral nuclear talks on Tuesday, offering to discuss its nuclear weapons programmes with the US and its neighbours, if Washington showed “sincerity” and met its “mature conditions”.

The reversal, less than two weeks after Pyongyang captured the world's attention by declaring it had already made nuclear weapons, follows the dispatch of Wang Jiarui, a high-level Chinese envoy, to the North Korean capital.

The U-turn, offering the hope of a resumption of the six-party talks, is the latest bout of erratic behaviour from a North Korean regime that has so far evaded all efforts to disarm it.

The official Korean Central News Agency quoted Kim Jong-il, the North Korean leader, as offering to return to negotiations, adding that his country “never opposed the six-party talks but made every possible effort for their success”.

“We will go to the negotiating table anytime if there are mature conditions for the six-party talks,” KCNA reported.

It is rare for Mr Kim to be quoted directly, and this is his first statement since the February 10 nuclear announcement.

Here's a link to the KCNA press report. This is certainly a change from North Korea's rhetoric and actions earlier this month.

If this change of tack pans out -- the North Korean statement has an awful lot of wiggle room -- then North Korea has put China into an increasingly awkward position. This episode would demonstrate that China is the one country that can get the North Koreans to cooperate. Which means, down the road, that China will be pressured by the other members of the six-party talks to compel North Korea to halt its weapons program.

posted by Dan on 02.23.05 at 12:05 AM


But isn't the flip side that China will get most of the glory if there is a diplomatic success and North Korea is persuaded to abandon its nuclear weapons?

I think that's one reason why the current passive US strategy is a big mistake by the Bush administration; it effectively allows China a major opportunity to enhance its prestige at the expense of the US which isn't being perceived as playing a useful role.

And of course a diplomatic solution is the good alternative. The bad alternative is that Kim keeps his nukes and one of the most secretive, brutal and crazy regimes in history has the means to attack Alaska and Hawaii and in a few years perhaps the US mainland.

posted by: Strategist on 02.23.05 at 12:05 AM [permalink]

I sort of agree with your post, but I believe you are a bit too optimistic.

I have posted a response to this on my site.

posted by: WunderKraut on 02.23.05 at 12:05 AM [permalink]

I really disagree with you Strategist. The NK crisis is not about prestige, but about finding a settlement. China is the only country that holds any sway over NK and it's in the US's interest to let China take the lead. The US has enough problems on their hands.

Also, the diplomatic strategy China is pursuing isn't that effective either. As the economist reported, while the US has too many demands before sitting down at the negociating table, China has been way too soft. But who knows what China will do if the US persuades the EU to maintain the military sanctions on China.

posted by: Anti-Strategist on 02.23.05 at 12:05 AM [permalink]

I'm not concerned about China seeking glory in a settlement of the North Korean nuclear situation. I am concerned that Beijing will postpone seeking a settlement until there is a grave crisis, by which time it may be too late to avoid all the things we fear and all the things the Chinese fear as well.

It is a problem Theodore Roosevelt would have recognized. The responsible exercise of power beyond national borders does not come naturally to people unused to power. Faced with difficult situations or even potentially dangerous ones, the temptation is to reaffirm old beliefs while letting matters drift in hopes that one's own involvement and the costs attendant on it can be minimized.

Thus the Wilson administration's neglect of preparedness after 1914 until the Kaiser's government left it little choice but to bring the United States into World War I. Thus the Mbeki government's pathetic and unworthy response to South Africa's neighbor Zimbabwe's descent into petty, squalid dictatorship; thus Germany's preference for addressing problems from arms proliferation to genocide with empty talk.

And thus also the Chinese tolerance for North Korea. Looked at realistically, there is very little the regime in Pyongyang has done, going back decades, that conforms to Chinese national interests. Kim Jong-il has created an economic basket case, as he could not have without Chinese support, so that the Chinese now fear the collapse of his regime could swamp northeast China with starving refugees. North Korea has stuck to an antique version of Communism long after China itself abandoned it; it has launched elaborate, even bizarre conspiracies against South Korea and Japan from which China could not possibly have benefited in any way.

And North Korea's pursuit of a nuclear arsenal not only serves no Chinese interest, but risks a Japanese response that is absolutely the last thing any Chinese government should want. After Japan's experience in World War II there is hardly anything that could prompt Japanese to want their own country to acquire a nuclear arsenal -- anything, that is, except a nuclear-armed North Korea. The United States is unlikely to have much trouble coexisting with a nuclear-armed Japan. That isn't true of China.

The truth is that China has already let the North Korean situation drift for far too long. Things will not get better if drift continues to be Beijing's policy. It is never a good idea for a large power to cede the initiative in matters touching its vital interests to a much smaller one. That is what China has done with respect to North Korea for many years. The Six Power talks provide Beijing with one means to repair some of the damage its own policy has caused over the years. The United States has every reason to hope China takes advantage of it.

posted by: Zathras on 02.23.05 at 12:05 AM [permalink]

"The NK crisis is not about prestige, but about finding a settlement."
The problem is that the current US strategy isn't really making a settlement easier either. One of the reasons that N Korea seeks a bomb is to deter a US threat. Without US security guarantees on the table the North Koreans are unlikely to give up their nukes.

At the same time if , against the odds, a solution is found it will be the Chinese who will get the credit at the expense of the US. When the chips were down and there was a major regional crisis, China and not the US will be seen to have provided the leadership.

This strikes me as a lose-lose proposition for the US. Of course the second "lose" (ie. increased Chinese prestige) is a lot less serious than the first one but it still isn't a good deal.

The other problem with the wait-and-watch approach is that it makes any eventual deal a lot more difficult to monitor. The more nukes North Korea has the harder it will be to verify that it doesn't have a few stashed in some basement somewhere. Indeed we may already be past the point of no return on that score. Also the more nukes they have, the better their bargaining position if they choose to negotiate them away.

posted by: Strategist on 02.23.05 at 12:05 AM [permalink]

Sort of a rushed post, so probably some errors:

The continued weakening of South Korea as a American ally, in favor of delusional wishful thinking, has significantly reduced our leverage. If they insist on portraying themselves as an honest broker between the US and DPRK, substituting domestically friendly brotherly love for a united ROK-US front, our options are limited. Besides which, a war over North Korea isn't in our interests at the moment and for the forseeable future.

The irrationality of the DPRK's leadership is there in part, but it is also becoming a cliche. They aren't -that- crazy. They perpetuate the myth, and act boldly enough, so that pressure on them seems unwise. The reality is they have shown themselves very rational actors in foreign policy. To this, the regime owes its survival.

I'm not worried about them using or giving away any nukes that they get, because we'd annihilate them. If the unofficial no-first use precendent is broken, against Japan, the ROK, or us, we will not hesitate to respond in kind. Otherwise, our nuclear deterrent becomes obsolete overnight and we will not allow that to happen.

If they are rational, they know this. If they are irrational, and really believe they are threatened, they also know this. No matter how you cut it, they aren't going to provoke their own incineration. I'm more worried about North Korean nuclear weapons falling into the hands of ambitious arms dealers/now disenfranchised military during the inevitable (when I say inevitable, I mean perhaps 10-20 years) North Korean implosion.

They aren't going to give up the nukes regardless of any security guarentee: for them the nukes are the guarentee against our preemption [not retaliation however]. THEY are the security guarentee, not any treaty. They wouldn't hesitate to break a treaty if it was in their interests, just as we wouldn't if the chips were really down. We can put up money in the short run; we may even slow it down and force them to move the program underground, as they did in Agreed Framework. That may be worthwhile to you.

I, however, believe it is ultimately a waste of money to pay them to do something they are not going to fully abandon. Furthermore, in the process we will both lengthen their lifespan and lessen the costs to China of supporting the regime. The DPRK is a Chinese ally. If they want it to survive they should be the ones forced to give it food aid, just as Cuba became a drain on the USSR.

If the ROK and Japanese want to be the suckers and pay up also, and this is understandable considering their proximity, they can also contribute. But with our global responsibilities, economic troubles, and the refusal of China and nowadays the ROK to help us, we should no longer be the sucker.

The only way that we could guarentee their compliance is an inspections regime so intrusive that they'd never accept it. The Bush administration is correct to refuse to waste money giving the DPRK lifesupport. For now we're content to waiting it out and making it known to them that if they are ever used against us, it will be responded to in kind. The long term solution is the DPRK's death or regime transformation into military dictatorship rather than the sultanic personality cult we've got at the moment. Like the somewhat similar Romania, both options are most likely going to be bloody, especially the former.

If it does implode, there's going to be tremendous financial upheaval. South Korea will go overnight from one of the world's tigers to an economic basketcase...It is going to make German unification look like a breeze. Throw in refugees and an international arms bizaar among the chaos, and you've got me wondering just how enthusiastic we should even be for it.

posted by: Cutler on 02.23.05 at 12:05 AM [permalink]

"(when I say inevitable, I mean perhaps 10-20 years) North Korean implosion."

I sorta changed my mind while writing this.

If Kim Jong Il succeeds in holding into the personality cult, there will be an implosion.

If he's knocked off, and the military seizes control, it could potentially liberalize to an extent that it survives..."muddling through." The personality cult can't survive liberalization though, that's why I think implosion in that case is inevitable.

posted by: Cutler on 02.23.05 at 12:05 AM [permalink]

Cutler, that's the most rational explanation I've ever heard about the NK situation. Thank you!

Now suppose the chinese believe as you do, that NK wants nukes as a deterrent but not to actually use. Then what do they gain by persuading the north koreans to give up their nukes even if they could do so?

China gains by feeding north korea because they don't want the consequences of an armed starving nation on their border. But north korea sure isn't going to nuke china, and if it isn't going to nuke south korea or japan either, what's the harm in just ignoring the whole thing? Or possibly getting the north koreans to agree to something in exchange for big concessions from the USA in favor of china.

As you implied, it's crazy for *anybody* to nuke anybody else. So every national government that wants to intimidate other governments with nukes has to persuade the world they're insane. The USA did this successfully for a long time and successfully intimidated the USSR. The only government I've ever heard of that didn't do this was india. Or maybe I just missed the news during a drawn-out divorce or something.

posted by: J Thomas on 02.23.05 at 12:05 AM [permalink]

"I'm not worried about them using or giving away any nukes that they get, because we'd annihilate them"
I don't the US would anhillate NK for giving away nukes particularly if it's just nuclear fuel. It would be hard enough to detect such a transfer let alone prove it beyond doubt. So, for instance, if North Korea supplies weapons-grade plutonium to Iran there is a pretty good chance they would get away with it. Which means there is a good chance they would attempt it in exchange for hard currency or oil.

The other problem is that if the US just decides to wait out a nuclear North Korea there is a good chance that other countries in the region will go nuclear. North Korean long-range missiles can threaten most of East Asia. Japan might decide to go nuclear and that could lead to others in the region following suit : South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia and even Australia. The nuclear non-proliferation regime would effectively be dead.

So however unpalatable it might seem, some kind of deal is the only real option. Whatever money the US and others have to offer is trivial compared to the costs of allowing NK to remain nuclear.

posted by: Strategist on 02.23.05 at 12:05 AM [permalink]

The first sentence should read "I don't think the US would..."

posted by: Stategist on 02.23.05 at 12:05 AM [permalink]

Strategist, nuclear nonproliferation *is* dead. Bush killed it. It may take a few years for the stink to rise but it's dead already.

It might have died in a few years even without Bush, it isn't entirely his fault. It was getting harder to maintain anyway. Bush just sped up the process.

posted by: J Thomas on 02.23.05 at 12:05 AM [permalink]

Chinese are gambling much more than USA, maybe they have their own internal problems and dont want too meddle in Korea but i am surprised by their lack of capability dealing with NK . Recent trends see an increasing closer relationship between US and Japan, China issued a protest after a joint US-Japanese declaration that makes Taiwanese strait a strategic zone for both countries.
Japan waking up. It is in their interests that they have a couple o Democratic states (Philiphines/Taiwan/Korea) as a tripwire against any Chinese potential expansion.

Maybe China is afraid that NK will be like Eastern Germany and just disapeers merged in a 100 Millions Population unified Korea.
So they are between a rock and hard place: In one side they have increasing Japanese/US cooperation in extreme Nuke in Japan hands, in the other side they'll have NK merged with South Korea.

The responsability is solely with NK and lack of Chinese control. Their gambles, Nuke cooperation with Pakistan, sending a Ballistic missile over Japan mainland made unvoidable a conflict or a "Cold War" zone. Not forgetting the failed Carter-Clinton agreement.

posted by: lucklucky on 02.23.05 at 12:05 AM [permalink]

The United States is simply deferring to regional power influences now, while keeping a close eye over each situation. Nepal? India can handle it. Ukraine? They have our backing, but Poland is taking a big stand. North Korea? This is where China comes in.

There has also been some discussion that if China does not resolve the issue with North Korea, then the U.S. will be forced to let Japan go nuclear to stalemate the situation.

posted by: Robert Mayer on 02.23.05 at 12:05 AM [permalink]

Japan, if it decides to go nuclear, will not need American permission. Popular Japanese distaste for nuclear weapons has thus far comported with America's preference for a nuclear-less Japan and a pacifist Japanese foreign policy, to the mutual advantage of both countries and of China as well. Our preference has not changed and is not likely to, but if Japan did go nuclear at some point America could live with it. A nuclear Japan would likely be a more assertive Japan, but this creates many more problems for the Chinese than it does for us.

Incidentally, I've noticed a number of people still talking as if the North Korean government is only acting the way Americans would if we were in North Korea's position -- wanting nuclear weapons as a deterrent, being worried about attack and so forth. This view is inconsistent with the facts. The only reason America has any interest in North Korea is its nuclear program; while it isn't impossible to imagine a government striving after a deterrent to protect its deterrent, deterrence is not where this program started. Moreoever the only aggression on the Korean peninsula since June of 1950 has come from the North Korean side.

The core of the North Korean problem is that Pyongyang wants something no one can give it: a guarantee that the things that have happened to every other Communist regime will never happen to it. And, North Korea wants nuclear weapons too. There is little prospect of successful bargaining with a government committed to these objectives unless its self-assurance is badly weakened -- specifically, if it is isolated even from its hitherto faithful ally and patron China.

posted by: Zathras on 02.23.05 at 12:05 AM [permalink]

Suppose china decides to disarm north korea. They will need the same sort of inspections we would, to be sure north korea really isn't building nukes. Wouldn't they? Could they depend on their spies?

It would be a lot of trouble. It would make their north korean pawns mad at them. They would lose whatever benefit they might get from a nuclear north korea that might occasionally hint at threatening peope for them that china doesn't want to threaten directly. Would north korea do that for china? I don't know, maybe in exchange for whatever gifts they most need from china.

It would be a lot of trouble, and what would china get in return? Not much, unless we made them some generous offer. What can we offer china in exchange for disarming north korea? Maybe we can offer them favorable trade agreements? Frankly, the only thing we have available to offer that they want is our blessing when they take over taiwan. Pretty much everything else we could bribe them with we've already given them.

Well, we could threaten china into doing what we want about north korea. But I think that's a bad idea.

More likely, the chinese will be diplomatic with us. If we give them some modest gifts and lavish praise they will speak sternly with the north koreans and get them to promise to stop making nukes in a few years. Or possibly get them to promise to dismantle their nukes provided nobody checks on them. Then our negotiators can declare victory and go home.

Where are we going to get a better deal than that?

About arming japan -- there's a reason we went 60 years without doing that. And incidentally, the reason a nuclear japan makes more problems for china than for us is that we'll be paring down to a regional power and east asia won't be a region we try to compete in.

posted by: J Thomas on 02.23.05 at 12:05 AM [permalink]

North Korea has a simple choice, really. Participate in the 6-way talks, or watch as 5-way talks progress. In the latter case, the talks might end on a note substantially more to the detriment of the North Korean government.

posted by: M Owens on 02.23.05 at 12:05 AM [permalink]

M, I agree that north korea has nothing to lose by participating in talks. But what would 5-way talks decide that would be so bad for north korea?

Would we all agree to invade north korea? Not likely.

Would we all agree to embargo north korea? Not likely. What does china win by starving north korea?

Would china agree to US pre-emptive strikes? Hardly.

I think china can pretty much dictate terms to north korea, within limits. It's a 2-way talk except the USA wants to sit in. But what will china really do? Why is north korea a problem for china and what can we bribe china with, what tribute can we give them when we humbly beg them to grant us this favor?

posted by: J Thomas on 02.23.05 at 12:05 AM [permalink]


Why do you think the North Koreans want nuclear weapons/why do you think this program started?

posted by: Cutler on 02.23.05 at 12:05 AM [permalink]

OK, hard to address anything in that case.

posted by: Cutler on 02.23.05 at 12:05 AM [permalink]

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