North Korea’s nuclear weapons development program has been taking on increasingly perilous proportions since last year, but it is anyone’s guess what developments and consequences the problem will take in the future.
The uncertainties are due, first of all, to the opacity of U.S. policy toward Pyongyang.
The United States has long maintained a stance of not engaging in negotiations with North Korea on a bilateral basis, reiterating that there must be multilateral talks to solve the problem.
The U.S. policy has just come to fruition in the form of an accord to hold talks with six countries involved taking part. The accord itself, however, is nothing more than a procedural arrangement.
When it comes to the substance of U.S. policy toward the North, however, very little is known other than the basic stance of never allowing Pyongyang to go nuclear.
Among major figures in the United States, former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry is probably the only one who has tackled head-on the issue of what policy should be taken toward North Korea. Perry has gone so far as to say the United States may be devoid of any well-defined policy toward this issue.
Two key factors
I have made some predictions about this matter since last year, making them public at home and abroad. To sum up, my view is that the United States and North Korea are capable of reaching a compromise.
The reason is that a couple of key factors behind compromises hammered out between Washington and Pyongyang in 1994 and 1999 have remained basically unchanged.
One is that North Korea has installed an estimated 10,000 artillery pieces and rocket launchers just north of the Armistice Line, which, in the event of war, could rain down several hundred thousand artillery rounds on South Korea within the first hours of an attack.
North Korean strikes could inflict casualties of up to 1 million in and around Seoul, according to a U.S. congressional testimony in 1995, while the figure was put at several hundred thousand in the 1999 Perry Report under the title “Review of United States Policy Toward North Korea.”
Even if advances in military technology might help reduce the anticipated casualties, there can be no denying that any war on the Korean Peninsula would cause a horrendous number of civilian deaths.
Undoubtedly, no South Korean politician can dare favor war in spite of this risk, while U.S. forces also would be subject to huge damage. As a result, the United States, taking all these risks into account, could not help but accept some form of compromise to avert war.
The other factor is that North Korea’s economy is in a great deal of trouble.
The 1989 collapse of the economic bloc under the umbrella of the Soviet Union dealt a crushing blow to Eastern European countries, as well as to such nations as India and Vietnam.
The economies of those countries, however, made a remarkable recovery in a few years thanks mostly to capital and technology introduced from the West.
The economy of North Korea, in contrast, has been plagued with a continuous decline since 1989, except for some fluctuations in crops, and is currently in a desperate situation.
Under the circumstances, Pyongyang is in dire need of rice, oil and other aid.
Because of this, fortunately there is a possibility of North Korea deeming some form of compromise as inevitable.
My predictions of course took into account that the conditions required for any compromise by the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, unlike its predecessor, would be very tough as Bush has branded North Korea part of an “axis of evil.”
I therefore predicted earlier that should no compromise be worked out, North Korea would continue boosting its nuclear program by all means, thus giving rise to a military crisis toward this summer.
The views held by Perry, who was in charge of the U.S. negotiations with North Korea in 1994 and 1999, were basically similar to mine.
Today, however, I hold a different opinion from Perry’s in that he has been very disappointed with the Bush administration’s actions in continuing to reject negotiations with North Korea throughout the first half of this year, to the extent of arguing that things are getting out of control and may drift into a situation leading to war.
War not imminet
I, for that matter, feel it necessary to modify conjecture that a military conflict could occur in the immediate future, while the North Korea problem has unfolded just as Perry and I anticipated.
What convinced me firmly that there would be no crisis this summer was a speech given by U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz on May 31 in a meeting in Singapore sponsored by Britain’s International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).
Given that the IISS is noted as one of the world’s most renowned forums of international political studies, I expected Wolfowitz in the meeting would come up with a policy toward North Korea that would be convincing enough to survive any kind of expert criticism.
What he said first regarding the issue, however, was that the Asia-Pacific region today “is truly peaceful–that is to say pacific–for one of the first times in its history.”
This single remark demonstrates clearly that the U.S. government is far from anticipating any major military conflict taking place on the Korean Peninsula in the near future.
At the IISS meeting, Wolfowitz stopped short of making reference to anything else other than a long-range observation that North Korea would eventually have no other option than to shift to a reform approach similar to the open-door policy of China’s Deng Xiaoping, a remark that could have no bearing upon any U.S. policy in the short term.
At the subsequent question-and-answer session, Wolfowitz was understandably asked how the United States was going to handle the nuclear threat posed by North Korea. He only expressed anxiety over the possible export of nuclear materials by North Korea.
There can be no doubt that the United States sees no possibility of war with North Korea in the immediate future.
The deterrent of the North’s conventional weapons may be a factor. But the U.S. commitment of not abandoning any options available also is worthy of note.
A matter of policy priority
I hereupon conjecture that the greatest among factors behind the U.S. stand may be a matter of policy priority: Even the Roman Empire, when embarking on the conquest of Germania, would refrain from having armed conflicts on the Eastern front other than skirmishes, if any, and vice versa.
A lion does his utmost to capture a single antelope, and does not try to obtain two at the same time. So it is quite understandable that the United States has not been minded to dispatch troops to Liberia to bring peace to the devastated African nation, a mission that would be undertaken by a single infantry brigade.
All things considered, the United States is unlikely to address the North Korean issue before its task of stabilizing the Middle East situation is accomplished to a certain extent. That is, a review of U.S. policy toward North Korea most likely hinges on progress in the Middle East peace process.
The fact, however, is that the prospect of the Middle East imbroglios being settled anytime soon are dim.
As long as the Palestinian problem is left unsettled, there can be no hope for a change in Arab anti-U.S. sentiment, and as long as the antipathy against the United States continues, Washington cannot afford to pull its troops out of Iraq.
It will take 2 years to give the finishing touches to the “road map” blueprint for the Arab-Israeli peace process. In addition, the administration of Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas would collapse in the event of the United State prematurely withdrawing its forces from Iraq.
Given these two major factors, the United States is bound to prolong its deployment of troops in Iraq. Depending on future developments, the United States might consider it inevitable to place a higher priority on solving problems with Iran and Syria over that of North Korea.
It would be off the mark, however, to state that such a U.S. stand would result in the absence of any U.S. policy toward the North.
The current U.S. policy is to hold North Korea’s nuclear threat in check on the strength of the U.S. deterrent, as was the case with its policy toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
As shown by the remark by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage in February to the effect that the United States would regard a North Korean missile attack on Japan as an attack on the United States itself, it will be sufficient for this country to keep as its deterrent the strength of an immediate and massive U.S. counterattack.
Some may argue that this is tantamount to conniving at North Korea’s move to arm itself with nuclear weapons. Yet apart from specific methods to sanction North Korea over the problem, the most probable policy option for the United States, in my view, is to continue placing diplomatic and economic pressure on Pyongyang without driving it to go to war, while maintaining the policy of never allowing North Korea to pursue its nuclear program.
In the forthcoming six-party negotiations, the United States will most likely be steadfast holding the principle of seeking a comprehensive solution with the terms of the negotiations open to all the parties, making no differences between the six-party talks and accompanying bilateral talks with North Korea.
Should North Korea, with its economy extremely hard up, give its assent fully to the terms offered by the United States, the problem would then be brought to settlement. There in fact is a possibility of such development turning out a reality.
In the event of things going awry, the United States would then employ a containment policy over a long period of time, while waiting for changes within North Korea or for the Middle East problem to be resolved up to a point.
Be careful, don’t be rash
Supposing that the prospect mentioned above should be considered right from an objective viewpoint–even though I am fully aware that there may be many viewpoints that differ from my own on this highly important question–what then should be deemed as appropriate in terms of policy toward North Korea?
First, although there is no impending crisis, at least for the time being, a crisis will occur eventually.
The remark by Perry that the Korean Peninsula situation may be drifting into war is much the same as my view, except that it is about circumstances likely to emerge in two years or so.
Japan, for its part, must waste no time in developing a missile defense system and bolstering capabilities to attack enemy missile bases during the coming two years.
The issue involving the exercise of the nation’s right to collective self-defense also should be resolved during the same period.
For its part, the United States can also afford to redeploy in two years its troops from areas adjacent to the Demilitarized Zone to establish major bases south of Seoul.
As for Japan’s future negotiations with North Korea, there is no need to be in a rush, because the outlook is that the United States most likely will be in no hurry to deal with North Korea.
It will be no problem for this country to settle down to the task of negotiating with North Korea without haste so as to ensure that issues pending between the two countries–including the abduction of Japanese by North Korean agents–will be solved in a manner acceptable to the great majority of the nation.
Messages should be sent from Japan to North Korea to bring home to the regime the fact that there is no political leader in this country who is impatient to outshine the others in achieving fast the goal of normalizing bilateral relations with North Korea.