Thursday, May 12, 2005

Nuclear Korea

US foreign policy seems to be heading toward an ever-deepening crisis over the issue of North Korea's nuclear program. The vaunted "six party talks" are creaking to a complete halt- the People's Republic of China has hamstrung US diplomatic efforts by announcing its refusal to tie basic economic aid for North Korea to the nuclear question. Non-military options seem to be running out quickly.

An Iraq-style solution can not be seriously considered in the case of Korea, however. An invasion would stretch US military assets beyond the breaking point, and would do incalculable damage to Sino-US relations. Indeed, there is no way to insure that such a conflict would not ultimately deteriorate into another Sino-US war.

Given the dire straits at present, it seems to me that a new diplomatic tack is needed. From my perspective, the deep structural flaw of post-cold war US policy toward North Korea has been the uncritical acceptance of North Korea's persistent existence. US policy seems resigned to the idea that North Korea will always exist, or at least that it will do so until its system collapses spontaneously under its own weight. This thinking is both unrealistic and culturally insensitive.

It is culturally insensitive because it ignores the fact that ALL Koreans, North and South, hope fervently for the reunification of their nation. Americans forget that Korea was a Japanese colony prior to WWII. The partition of Korea was a strategic accident, it resulted from US insistence that the Soviet Union join the Pacific War after Germany's surrender. In being partitioned Korea was effectively treated as an Axis power. Worse than an Axis power, in fact, since the speed with which the US' atomic arsenal brought the war to an end spared Korea's colonial oppressors the pain of partition. The partition of Korea is a relic of a cold war that is long over, no one in the diplomatic community should treat it as a necessary, inexorable, or unalterable "fact." All countries, the US included, should be discussing the paths by which this historic injustice may be undone.

Moreover, the Korean people's aspirations for unification is the chief weakness of the North Korean regime. Should the US put unification on the table as a topic of negotiation the North Korean regime would be trapped by its own rhetoric- they could not refuse to treat such a negotiation seriously, and they could not justify making something like a small nuclear arsenal an obstacle to that long-cherished goal.

The clear logic of this notion seems so apparent to me that I sometimes wonder why no US leader has even floated the idea as a "trial balloon" for the world press. Obviously, any official US endorsement of Korean unification would have to be done in very cautious, provisional language and with the close cooperation of our allies in South Korea (cooperation they are likely to give- the move would undoubtedly be wildly popular in the South). Nonetheless, such a move seems clearly to be the only way the US can restore its bargaining position with North Korea to one of advantage.

Perhaps US leaders feel that placing reunification onto the negotiating table plays into the North's hands. As said above, this school of thought posits that the North will collapse of its own degeneracy eventually, negotiating reunification with them will only give them a new lease on life. This is an unrealistic perspective, however. The North's militant isolation is what extends its longevity. Opening up cracks in that isolation through negotiated "stages of integration" (allowing for trade, travel, immigration) would hasten, not deter, the disintegration of the North's despotism. The experience of the Soviet bloc, where low-level human contacts and exchanges were instrumental in sowing the seeds of systemic discontent, proves the efficacy of this tack.

The only other reason I can think that the US refuses to broach the subject of reunification is the experience of the Korean War. When the Northern regime surmised in 1950 that the US did not have the political will to defend the South they launced an all-out surprise offensive. Since then US policymakers have felt that any slippage in our perceived willingness to defend South Korea might trigger another invasion. This thinking is outmoded, however. The Northern despots may be crazy, but they are not stupid. They know that the cold war is over and that they can no longer count on the strategic support of the Soviet Union or China if they attacked the South and the US unprovoked. A US offer to negotiate reunification would not embolden the Northern leadership, it would frighten them. Skillfully executed over the long term such negotiations would see the fears of Kim Jong-il and his ilk realized.

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