Enlarge the North Korean Problem

James E. Goodby

Some of South Korea’s most influential policy advisers met for five hours last Friday with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Il. The Bush administration’s initial reaction was dismissive.

Tone deafness is not unusual in this administration but, in this case, the problem with Washington’s approach is more fundamental. What began as an exercise in arms control has been superseded by a much bigger issue: the future security structure of Northeast Asia. The administration seems to be unaware of this. South Korea is not.

There is much talk in Seoul of a Northeast Asian community. Washington’s friends are on to something: The nuclear issue can only be resolved within a framework that is as large as the strategic issue of which it is a part. Some years ago, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld published “Rumsfeld’s Rules,” one of which declares that “if you can’t solve a problem, enlarge it.” This happens to be very good advice in this particular case.

Quite apart from the nuclear issue, it should be a U.S. policy imperative to head off conflicts within the system of nations whose interests intersect and sometimes collide in Northeast Asia. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has used the term zero-sum thinking to describe a struggle for advantage in which one nation’s gain is seen as another’s loss. Such thinking is on the rise in Northeast Asia. Absent some mechanism to moderate the trends now gathering force, the long-term outlook for peace is bleak. Can we forget that three major 20th century wars involving the United States began in Asia?

The six nations that have participated in talks on North Korea need to enlarge the scope of their discussions. They need not change the general purpose of the original six-party talks nor should they wait any longer for those talks to be successful. In parallel with those talks, or independently if the talks are not resumed, they should work out a mandate for a permanent mechanism to promote security and cooperation in Northeast Asia. This region is one of the few that does not have the organizational infrastructure to encourage multilateral cooperation.

Interest in a security community is growing. If Washington drops the ball, some other nation is likely to pick it up and shape the outcome to its liking.

The mandate for a security community should be as broad as that of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. It should include a joint commitment not to use or threaten force in the mutual relations of the participants; regulation of conventional armaments and transparency in military operations; cooperative programs to develop the energy and transport infrastructure of Northeast Asia; programs to deal with improvements in the welfare of individual citizens; and cultural exchanges. Regular consultations among governmental leaders should be mandated.

The fundamental purpose of a permanent security mechanism would be to prevent virulent competition and military confrontation between nations. And it is precisely within such a framework that the problem of devising a sustainable agreement to end North Korea’s nuclear weapons program also can be found. It is argued that this approach would delay the efforts of the original six-party talks. But, in fact, parallel talks on a broader agenda would more likely expedite a positive outcome of the nuclear talks.

The original six-party talks should, if possible, continue to discuss the technical aspects of nuclear roll-back, including the ideas about phasing, dismantlement procedures and verification that the United States proposed in June 2004, the last time the six-party talks met. The “Libya model”—parallel and reciprocal actions taken without benefit of a treaty after long behind-the-scenes negotiations—should also be pursued.

There is no way to predict whether North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Il, would agree to embed the six-party talks in a larger exercise in institution-building, but his government should be invited to do so.

This proposal is not a device for isolating North Korea but rather for including that country in a Northeast Asian security community where gradual reform of the North’s authoritarian system would be encouraged. The door should always be open to North Korea if its government is willing to make a commitment to peace, including nuclear disarmament. But if Kim Jong Il refuses to join in this effort the other five should proceed without him. They need this multilateral mechanism for their own reasons, not all of which are connected to North Korea. They would be unwise to allow progress toward a Northeast Asia security community to be held hostage to the outcome of the current six-party talks.