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Toward a new foreign policy.

Pyongyang has long recognized that nuclear weapons are one of the few deterrents that the U.S. takes seriously when contemplating regime change. "We won't be next," they are telling a U.S. government bent on replacing Saddam Hussein. At the same time, to improve relations with the larger world, North Korea must reveal the extent of its nuclear program. A diplomatic solution requires international inspections and a suspension of North Korea's nuclear program.

The first step, then, must be a renegotiation of the Agreed Framework, which was always supposed to be about more than simply constructing two nuclear power plants in North Korea. North Korea expected the agreement to lead to a normalization of relations; the U.S. architects of the agreement expected North Korea to collapse before the plants were built. An agreement premised on such contrary expectations cannot last long. The current crisis represents an opportunity to craft a better agreement that would provide greater security guarantees for the U.S. and its allies and a more sustainable energy future for North Korea.

Second, the U.S. must provide assurance that it will not launch a preemptive attack on Pyongyang. A government under constant threat of attack will seek out all deterrents within reach. As part of a package deal, security guarantees such as a suspension of military exercises or troop reductions should accompany verbal promises.

Finally, and most fundamentally, the U.S. must develop a more nuanced understanding of what is happening in North Korea. The Bush administration portrays North Korea as a totalitarian society frozen in time and adamantine in philosophy. To the extent that an impoverished country can do so in a globalized age, North Korea has insisted on determining its own pace of change. To borrow from the language of science, North Korea is engaged in a form of punctuated evolution--not a smooth transition from Confucian communism to market socialism but a process characterized by sudden bursts of diplomatic and economic activity. The last four months have been just such a burst.

Granted, North Korea as a changeless, evil society figures prominently in the structure of U.S. security doctrine, and it might be naive to expect the Bush administration to understand Pyongyang's punctuated evolution. To do so, however, is not simply of academic interest. There are important benefits to engagement that the Bush administration has thus far ignored.

The benefits can't be expressed in trade figures. Although North Korea has key natural resources--gold, magnesite, even newly discovered offshore oil--it remains a poor investment. The country, however, plays a pivotal role in the region. With North Korea more resolutely embarked on market reforms, East Asia would be able to form a free trade area, Europe and Asia would be able to connect by railroad and would greatly expand trade, and the natural resources of the Russian Far East would be more easily tapped for Asian development. Russia, China, South Korea, and Japan all recognize this potential. Only the U.S., because of Bush's apparent unwillingness to explore diplomatic solutions, remains aloof from what promises to be one of the more remarkable economic shifts in the coming decade.

For any of the grander economic schemes involving North Korea to materialize, however, a large infusion of capital into the country is required. The only likely source for such capital, apart from Japan, is the international financial sphere. The IMF has extended an invitation for North Korea to participate in its 2003 meeting in Dubai and has offered technical assistance even before membership. Yet, market reforms and involvement with international financial institutions represent a two-edged sword. This kind of engagement brings North Korea into the world and thus reduces the risk of war, particularly with the United States. But it also creates debt dependency and accentuates what are already strong class divisions within North Korea.

Before North Korea confronts these difficult choices, the basic clash between the Bush administration's preference for regime change and North Korea's preference for nuclear deterrence must be resolved. These two destabilizing strategies have developed a toxic codependency on the Korean Peninsula, and the U.S. and North Korea must agree quickly and equitably on a new framework to detoxify their relations.

Key Recommendations

* In order to stop North Korea's nuclear program, the Agreed Framework needs to be salvaged and improved upon.

* The U.S. must provide assurance that it will not launch a preemptive attack on Pyongyang.

* The Bush administration must develop a more nuanced understanding of what is happening on the ground in North Korea, so the U.S. can take part in future regional economic development.

John Feffer <johnfeffer@aol.com> is the author of Shock Waves: Eastern Europe After the Revolutions, the editor of the forthcoming Power Trip: U.S. Foreign Policy After September 11 (Seven Stories, 2003), and has recently returned from three years based in Tokyo working on East Asian issues.
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Title Annotation:U.S. policy toward North Korea
Author:Feffer, John
Publication:Foreign Policy in Focus
Geographic Code:9NORT
Date:Dec 1, 2002
Words:815
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