Commentary Type

How Bush Risks Losing Korea

Op-ed in the Financial Times


We have just witnessed the latest round of North Korean brinkmanship: the display to American visitors at the Yongbyon nuclear site of an empty spent-fuel pond and a substance alleged to be plutonium. The North Koreans seem happy to maintain such pressure on the US: as time passes, their nuclear activities proceed and they hope, after the US presidential election, to face a more pliant set of interlocutors.

Yet testimony to the US Congress this week by Siegfried Hecker, the physicist-that the material he handled at Yongbyon was probably reprocessed plutonium but that the North Koreans provided no evidence of successfully using it in weapons-will be used by some in the Bush administration as an excuse to temporise. Negotiations will eventually resume but are most likely to be political theatre. Reluctant in an election year to request a congressional appropriation to compensate North Korea for bad behaviour, the Bush administration appears content to bide its time, hoping North Korea will simply collapse. If regime change is the strategy, sitzkrieg is the tactic.

Such hopes may well be in vain. Economic reforms launched 18 months ago by North Korea may ultimately generate unmanageable social changes but in the short term the reforms have driven a surge in small-scale retailing and other trading activities. My calculations suggest that the odds today on regime change are not particularly high, about 5 per cent in any given year. Over a decade the odds shorten quite appreciably but neither the US nor the world can afford to wait that long to end North Korea's nuclear programme. If the White House seeks regime change in North Korea, it will have to give history a shove. The country is unlikely to collapse under current conditions.

South Korea is crucial in this regard. No coercive plan can succeed without Seoul's support. South Korean resources could frustrate any effort to strangle the North economically and, if Seoul withheld political support for such a scheme, it would give China and others the diplomatic cover to defect.

Today a growing majority of South Koreans, having lived for decades in the shadow of its forward-deployed artillery, do not regard North Korea as a serious threat. In marked contrast to the North's isolation and penury, the South's growing prosperity and confidence have transformed fear and loathing into pity and forbearance. Instead, it is the US, an ocean away, that regards the North and its nuclear programme with alarm. While Washington has focused on the nuclear programme, its South Korean ally has observed the North's nascent economic reforms and heard its talk of conventional forces reduction-and the gap in the two countries' respective assessments of the North Korean threat has patently widened.

A recent opinion poll found that more South Koreans saw the US as the principal threat to peace than those who identified North Korea as the biggest threat. This is consistent with other surveys of South Korean views in the past year or so. The younger the respondents and the higher their education level, the wider is this gap in their threat perceptions. Another survey, conducted last year by a researcher at Wellesley College, found that 77 per cent of about 430 South Korean university students polled supported North Korea's development of nuclear weapons.

In these circumstances, a prerequisite for a US-led strategy of multilateral coercive diplomacy should be to convince South Korea's government and public of the correctness of its case.

The indispensable first step of such a campaign would be revitalising the six-way talks on dismantling North Korea's nuclear arms programme. Even if one doubts that negotiation can succeed in eliminating the programme, earnest and sincere participation by all parties, including the US, Japan, Russia and China, is essential to put the onus on Pyongyang of failure to make consensual progress-and to securing South Korean (and Chinese) support for more coercive measures.

Supporters in the Bush administration of more robust policies towards North Korea do not seem to appreciate this linkage. Their first audience must be the South Korean public. Neither time nor demographics is working in their favour. The recent resignation of Yoon Young-kwan, South Korea's foreign minister, has highlighted divisions in Seoul on these issues. His replacement, Ban Ki-moon, an experienced America-hand, sends a reassuring signal but it is far from clear that the pro-US faction is in ascendance. A window is closing and, if the Bush administration does not move quickly, current trends suggest the central foreign policy issue of the 2008 US presidential campaign may be "who lost Korea?"

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