The U.S. Must Lead

Jae Ho Chung
Jae Ho Chung Professor of International Relations, Seoul National University

April 10, 2003

The war on Iraq has largely over-shadowed the North Korean crisis, although it may be fermenting without spreading much odour yet. If time is indeed at a premium—and unless the world is ready to accept North Korea as a new member of the “nuclear club”—the absence of progress is all the more puzzling, if not incomprehensible. How a divided United Nations Security Council will address the standoff depends on whether the United States is capable of taking a bold initiative, which will, in turn, motivate China, as a great power, to do its share.

In Northeast Asia, at least on the surface, there appears to be a consensus on three points. First, a nuclear North Korea is not acceptable. Second, the use of any military measures should be avoided. And third, the US needs to engage in dialogue with North Korea.

Yet, even such a regional consensus, particularly in regard to the third point, has so far failed to gain a critical audience in Washington, where officials insist on North Korea’s complete and verifiable abandonment of its high-enriched uranium programme as the precondition for any meaningful diplomatic engagement.

The debate on whether North Korea is truly pursuing a nuclear weapons programme—or just wants to use it as a bargaining tool—goes on. Unless the US is determined to face a nuclear North Korea, it should engage in dialogue.

Even ignoring the regional consensus in Northeast Asia, the US must enter into talks to unequivocally demonstrate its willingness to resolve the problem. This would also pressure China to take a more proactive role.

Three informed guesses might account for China’s passive stance. First, if China was instrumental in North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, as some have insinuated, how could it now condemn the programme? Considering the available evidence, however, this may not hold water.

Second, what if China exhausted its leverage with North Korea in 1994, which led to the now defunct Agreed Framework? But there is no evidence to show this is the case.

Third, if China does retain significant leverage over North Korea, it comes down to a matter of using it at the right moment. That time will be when China believes it can take maximum credit from the international community for its actions—even at the expense of creating animosity in North Korea towards China. This seems the more likely of the three hypotheses.

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun has already sent his National Security Adviser, Ra Jong-yil, to Beijing for talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing. South Korean Foreign Minister Yoon Young-kwan is arriving in the capital today.

However, without America’s ice-breaking “bold initiative,” it is unclear whether China will take any significant steps. Instead, it is down to the US to ensure a satisfactory outcome. After all, America rejected South Korea’s “leading” role in the resolution of the North Korean problem.

It is time to get China involved—which is what the multilateral, or embedded multilateral, approach aims to achieve—but the US must make the first move. There is more to diplomacy than simply viewing world affairs in black and white. It is time to act, not just observe, before it is too late.