Sunday, June 26, 2011

Kerry says engage North Korea directly

Writing in an oped piece that appeared in the Los Angeles Times, former Democratic presidential nominee and current US Senator from Massachusetts John Kerry says that the Obama administration's stance has been measured, firm, but ultimately inadequate. He calls for direct talks:
Returning immediately to the six-party talks (which included North Korea, South Korea, the United States, Russia, China and Japan) is not viable. South Korea won't participate unless North Korea atones for its recent bad behavior. And the North, approaching a leadership succession in 2012, is disinclined to cooperate lest it look weak.

Similarly, there are limits to the pressure that China is willing and able to apply. China exerts the most leverage as North Korea's ally and largest trading partner, but it's not willing to risk the country's collapse. Further, Pyongyang has a habit of stubbornly resisting good advice, even from its patrons in Beijing.

The best alternative is for the United States to engage North Korea directly.

We all have grown weary of North Korea's truculence — its habit of ratcheting up tensions, followed by calls to negotiate back from the brink, followed by concessions, and a repetition of the process. But while North Korea may be the "land of lousy options," as one expert calls it, inaction only invites a dangerous situation to get worse.
While he accepts the label of North Korea as "the land of lousy options," I say, pragmatically, nothing can be done about North Korea, not without China's consent. And frankly, I think Senator Kerry misreads and misunderstands the degree and extent of China's influence.

China may already be taking last year's attacks and using them as a pretext for changing Pyongyang's behavior at a holistic level. China does not want to lose their buffer, of course, and they also want access to the East Sea (aka Sea of Japan), and they have belatedly realized how bad it is for Beijing to ignore Pyongyang's bad behavior.

Note that all of this has little to do with what Seoul, Washington, or Tokyo have done. When Seoul takes a hardline stance on Pyongyang, as current President Lee Myungbak has done, North Korea sinks South Korean ships and shells South Korean islands, but even when South Korea was on the complete opposite course, in the heady days of Sunshine Policy openness, there were major military clashes out in the Yellow Sea.

And thus Kerry misjudges the situation, saying a dangerous situation will get worse if we do nothing, when in fact it is our predictable "gotta do something" response that precipitates the next round of brinkmanship by North Korea. Pyongyang thinks it has a winning formula, which is why (as I colorfully illustrated here, where I noted that Kim Jong-il acts like a six-year-old Kushibo) we need to break that cycle.

President Obama has been firm and his response measured because he is not reacting as his predecessors did. Certainly he has the benefit of foresight that Clinton and even Bush43 did not, and he so far seems to be sticking to what Joshua Stanton of One Free Korea calls "Plan B," a hard-nosed, non-military threat that hurts the Pyongyang regime financially to effect changes in their behavior.

Now where Joshua and I may disagree is that I think it was necessary to at least try Sunshine Policy, given that a hardline policy had been ineffective for the nearly half century prior to that, and I think even though Sunshine Policy failed (in part for being too much carrot and not enough stick) engagement should be tried in ways that will not benefit the DPRK military or line the coffers of the regime (see previous link). But we both agree that Obama should stick to this plan. To engage now would just reward Kim Jong-il's government for patiently waiting for anger to subside just enough that Washington and Seoul will come to the table, making such bad acts more likely in the future when Pyongyang isn't getting its way again.

It also comes at a time when Beijing may actually be effecting real changes, for a change. Although I am deeply concerned that China's ultimate goal may be to fully integrate North Korea into its Northeastern Provinces (making North Korea the Inner Cháoxiān Autonomous Region), China has started to leverage its role as North Korea's only friend of substance, forcing Pyongyang to make economic reforms, helped along by China in exchange for small territorial concessions.

But that largely gets ignored. While I've been beating the drum that China has begun this reform-and-absorb policy in earnest, the rest of the world was distracted by the Kim Jong-un ascension side show.

My conclusion is that people like Senator Kerry should visit Monster Island and One Free Korea a bit more often, because then you might see that Pyongyang is still trying to play you, but Obama seems to have picked up on that.

If any negotiations should be done with North Korea at this time, it should be to decide which plot of land in Mongolia the Royal Kimenbaums would like for their exile.

Requisite picture of threatening-looking images from 
North Korea that must accompany any article on North Korea. 
In this photo: North Korean MILDs (military I'd like to disarm).

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