‘Perfidious Columbia’

INSIGHTS INTO THE WORLD / ‘Perfidious Columbia’

Hisahiko Okazaki / Special to The Yomiuri Shimbun

(Nov. 3, 2008)


The way the United States removed North Korea from its terrorism blacklist last month reminds me of the term “perfidious Albion,” the expression used to describe the British Empire when it wielded global hegemony in the early 20th century.


The term, in my view, refers to the fact that countries with weaker influence sometimes find they have no other choice in dealing with a hegemon but to bite the bullet in the face of the hegemon’s conduct.


I would like here to look back again on the history of the policy of the U.S. administration of President George W. Bush toward North Korea.


The Bush administration’s initial policy toward Pyongyang was to brand it as part of an “axis of evil,” meaning that Washington would not bother listening to the North. The policy basically meant that the United States was waiting for the North Korean regime to collapse.


The U.S. decision in 2002 to scrap the Agreed Framework between Washington and Pyongyang was one of the consequences of that policy.


There is a theory, however, that North Korea, having developed the capacity to build nuclear weapons, never had the intention in any way to freeze its nuclear program for long. And it may have decided to acknowledge its uranium-enrichment activities fully aware that doing so might mean that the Agreed Framework would crumble.


To ensure the consistency of Bush’s policy toward North Korea, it would have been logical for his administration to bolster sanctions against the North to accelerate the demise of the North Korean regime. Even if the envisioned collapse of the regime did not materialize, the Bush administration should have done whatever it could to drive Pyongyang into a corner and extract concessions from it.


In fact, the sanctions Japan and the United States jointly implemented against North Korea in the wake of its testing in 2006 of a nuclear weapon with a plutonium core seemed to deal a considerably heavy blow to Pyongyang.


What actually occurred, however, was not the demise of North Korea. Pyongyang instead accumulated plutonium by putting the reactor at Yongbyon, north of the capital, into operation again for four years. That eventually led the North to the point where it was capable of carrying out the nuclear test.


To put it bluntly, the current U.S. policy, or the policy being advanced by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, appears to be designed to return to the status quo ante that was in place at the time of the administration of President Bill Clinton.


Given the domestic political circumstances of the United States, however, it is understandably hard for Rice to admit that she is in favor of going back to a policy pursued when the Democratic Party was in power. She therefore uses the rhetoric of asserting that the U.S. negotiations with North Korea this time are different from the past as it is a “step toward the total abolition” of the North’s nuclear weapons program. None in the Bush administration, including Rice herself, however, seem to believe in a “total abolition.”




Clumsy negotiating strategy


As a matter of fact, the conditions that have been attached to inspections of the North’s nuclear facilities are so lax that the United States has in effect given up the idea of making any further progress on verification of Pyongyang’s uranium-enrichment records, nuclear material stockpiles and nuclear weapons.


The decision to adopt a policy of returning to where things stood at the time of the Agreed Framework is, in fact, not a bad idea. The problem is the way Rice handled the matter.


First, instead of spending a judicious amount of time scrutinizing the effects of the sanctions Japan and the United States imposed on North Korea after its nuclear test, the secretary of state jumped unquestioningly–without consulting Japan–at overtures made by the North, which had its back to the wall.


On top of this, the way the United States steered the negotiations over North Korea’s denuclearization was extremely inept and clumsy.


While the Clinton administration achieved the freezing of the Yongbyon facilities for seven years solely in exchange for offering fuel oil and construction of a light-water reactor to the North, all the Bush administration has obtained, at great cost, is a weasel-worded promise from the North that it will disable its nuclear facilities–which can be recovered in six months or so.


In fact, the Bush administration connived at North Korea’s production of counterfeit 100 dollars bills and decided to defreeze its bank account, allowing Pyongyang to reap profits from this illegal activity, eventually proceeding to rescind the designation of North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism, thereby betraying the trust of Japan, an ally of the United States.


Under the Agreed Framework, a mechanism was in place to halt fuel oil supplies and suspend construction of the light-water reactor in the event of North Korea putting the facility at Yongbyon back into operation, in violation of the agreement, thus guaranteeing the North’s compliance with the accord.


The Washington-Pyongyang agreement this time, however, lacks any mechanism to prevent North Korea from resuming the facility’s operation. It is considered almost certain that the North will sooner or later resume operating the facility on the slightest excuse, unless additional economic benefits are given.


The third problem with the delisting decision is that the United States has given little thought to the significance of nuclear facility inspections, which should be an integral part of efforts for any disarmament.


Although there can be no doubt that the United States has been overgenerous to North Korea, there is no use crying over spilled milk.




Beware of ‘salami tactic’


Confucius said, “Don’t blame bygones.” Now that things have come to such a pass, it seems there is no choice but to treat the North’s promise that it will disable its nuclear facilities as better than nothing, even though the promise will probably be kept for six months or so.


From now on, maximum possible efforts must be exerted to prod North Korea to accept verification of all its nuclear activities.


With the United States having already jettisoned its leverage, however, the extent to which Pyongyang may make concessions on the matter is anyone’s guess.


Although we should let bygones be bygones, we can draw lessons from them.


The biggest among the lessons for Japan, which is seeking resolution of the issue of abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents, is the importance of not repeating the mistake made in the U.S.-North Korean negotiations: Washington’s being taken in by what may be called Pyongyang’s “salami tactic.” The tactic, which North Korea excels in, is demanding concessions from a negotiating partner at each stage of talks bit by bit, like cutting a salami into thin slices, while giving little in return.


Japan, for its part, has stuck consistently to the principle of refusing to give any economic aid to the North as long as the abduction issue is left unresolved. This means that Japan’s diplomacy has been given some backbone as far as this issue is concerned–a thing that has not been seen in the postwar annals of diplomacy of this country. Without this principle, Japan would have been sponged on by the North for money or something else at every phase of negotiations.


Let’s suppose that North Korea was willing to make a full and final settlement of the abduction issue and went on to agree on a peace treaty with Japan. The rewards the North would gain by doing so would far outweigh those it has so far squeezed out of the United States with its salami tactic.


In other words, North Korea must be sufficiently motivated to resolve the abduction problem. Japan must be fully vigilant not to allow Pyongyang to make use of the salami-cutting trickery. The United States, for that matter, should consider taking advantage of Japan’s position proactively as a resource common to our alliance that is available for a complete resolution of both the nuclear and abduction problems in their entirety. Until this approach proves successful, Washington should refrain from making trivial demands on Japan over Japan’s stand vis-a-vis the North.




Maximum priority on allies



Another lesson taught by the U.S. delisting of North Korea as a terrorism-sponsoring state is how important it is for this country to remind the United States repeatedly of the need to have sufficient consultations with its allies about issues involving North Korea.


If a proposal is made for developing the current framework of the six-party talks for denuclearization of North Korea into a multilateral organization for Northeastern Asia’s regional security, Washington should commit to consulting beforehand with its allies on every item to be discussed there.


The United States, in light of the difficulty the Japanese government was forced to endure by the removal of North Korea from the terrorism blacklist, should be well aware of the importance of such prearrangements. Washington, too, in this sense, may have drawn a lesson, or at the very least, it should try to learn a lesson from this.


With North Korea having already become a country armed with nuclear weapons, what the United States should address as a matter of top priority is what military strategy must be worked out to cope with the menace of the North. This is the challenge that the United States should address in earnest along with its allies, Japan and South Korea, not at the venue of the six-way talks.


Okazaki served as Japanese ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Thailand. He is currently a guest research fellow at the Yomiuri Research Institute.