The Peninsula Question: A Chronicle of the Second Korean Nuclear Crisis

Yoichi Funabashi
The Brookings Institution
A Multilayered Crisis Pages 474-476

Of all the countries that have lost opportunities, North Korea has lost the most. Earlier in this book, I noted that the 1990s was a decade in which North lost everything, but it kept losing opportunities even after the turn of the century, North Korea failed to keep the momentum going on normalization of diplomatic relations with Japan, which it had patiently taken a number of extraordinary steps to achieve, including signing the Japan-DPRK Pyongyang Declaration and even admitting and apologizing for its abduction of Japanese citizens. In the end, even the Pyongyang Declaration was gravely damaged by North Korea’s missile launchings.

At the six-party talks, even though the joint statement after the fourth round gave North Korea almost everything that it requested, Pyongyang immediately brought everything back to square one through a Foreign Ministry statement that was highly critical of the United States.

Why did North Korea launch its missiles? When asked for his view at a U.S. Senate hearing, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill gave the following possible reasons:
· to force the United States into serious engagement with North Korea (in order to make the United States lift the financial sanctions against North Korea and resume bilateral negotiations)
· to divert Chinese pressure on North Korea (to prevent economic domination by China and a China-U.S. coalition)
· to be treated as a nuclear power (to demonstrate its nuclear deterrence by showing off its delivery capability)
· to appease the North Korean military, whose influence is growing (an indication of Kim Jong-il’s reduced control of the military, due to the prospective father-to-son transfer of power).

In addition to those reasons, Hill referred to the trauma that North Korea has suffered: “History’s already happened. It’s over. And you can imagine if there’s a trauma there. I mean, you can imagine how they feel about that, and so how do they catch up? They catch up with a sort of super weapon.” (53) The subsequent nuclear test reveals perhaps even more poignantly this kind of reasoning.

Thus, the North Korean nuclear crisis is an expression of a deep identity crisis on the part of North Korea - which has been left behind by the world, by the times, by history itself - as well as a regime crisis. That might be what Yoon Young-kwan meant when he described North Korea as an orphan. What is alarming is that North Korea has chosen to express its sense of loss and alienation by obtaining nuclear weapons. What is even more alarming is that North Korea appears to be convinced of its own comparative advantage in the “race of terror”; that is how strong its fetish for nuclear weapons has become. But, in fact, the world’s other nuclear powers, such as the United States, China, and Russia, are no different from North Korea in terms of their obsession with nuclear capability. And the more the United States and others emphasize the virtues of the Libyan model, the more North Korea will stick to the Pakistani model.

In chapter 10 I referred to a track-two conference held in New York in 2005 on the North Korean nuclear issue - a conference that proved to be the turning point in efforts to convene the fourth round of the six-party talks. When a U.S. administration official who participated in the conference saw more than 100 journalists waiting for the arrival of Li Gun, director general of the American Affairs Bureau of North Korea’s Foreign Ministry, at a reception hosted by Henry Kissinger at the exclusive 21 Club in Manhattan, he became convinced that North Korea would never abandon its nuclear weapons or programs. “Does Kissinger invite Li Gun to a reception if North Korea does not possess nuclear weapons?” he asked. “And who would want to report on the arrival of Li Gun at the reception site?” (54)

The same thing can be said about the six-party talks. As James Kelly observed in a Beijing hotel room after the third round of the six-party talks, the multilateral process might have been a double-edged sword. It might have given a sense of empowerment to North Korea, leading it to believe that it was because of its nuclear capability that the other participants in the talks paid North Korea so much attention. (55) The existence of the six-party talks has come to be a safety net for North Korea and its brinkmanship diplomacy - something North Korea does not want to destroy. Accordingly, North Korea will be less inclined to dismantle its nuclear programs, because to do so will deprive it of the six-party talks.

Nuclear proliferation has caused a tectonic change in international politics, where nuclear capability has been the ultimate symbol of power, and that is one source of the recent wobbling and turbulence in the orientation of U.S. foreign policy. To blame only the incompetence and ideological fixation of the Bush administration for the instability is not justified, although those definitely are contributing factors. After the 9/11 attacks, a new element of the war on terror - the connection between terrorists and nuclear arms - emerged in international politics. The North Korean nuclear crisis is, therefore, also a manifestation of the crisis in the nuclear situation of the United States and of the world as a whole.

The second Korean nuclear crisis is a strange crisis. Although no one, including the United States, openly declares that there is a crisis, all the countries concerned have contributed to deepening it. The reason that the United States has avoided acknowledging that a crisis exists is its fear of being trapped by North Korean brinksmanship. South Korea has not done so because of its fear of being criticized for the failure of its policy to bring peace and prosperity to the Korean Peninsula. In the case of China, it has loathed being asked to put more pressure on North Korea. While all of these countries have tried to avoid openly recognizing the existence of the crisis, North Korea has used the crisis to its advantage.

Once the six-party talks were instituted to address the crisis, North Korea created another crisis, on the very stage set by the six-party talks. During the five rounds of the talks, however, the five other countries never, not even once, took a concerted step toward settling the North Korean nuclear issue. We have already observed how Japan, South Korea, and the United States are losing their sense of commonality and solidarity.

Hence the six-party talks have drifted. Meanwhile, the international environment surrounding Northeast Asia has experienced a historic transformation involving many factors: the rise of China, rapprochement between South Korea and North Korea and the rise of Korean nationalism, Japan’s aspiration to become a “normal country,” and the U.S. preference for an “alliance of the willing” to settle and manage conflicts (the regionalization and multinationalization of conflict management).

It is essential to construct a regional, multilateral framework for peace and stability in order to prevent Northeast Asia from becoming polarized. The six-party talks process has the potential to become the foundation of such a framework, The joint statement of the fourth round of the six-party talks includes the declaration “The Six Parties committed to joint efforts for lasting peace and stability in Northeast Asia” because, no matter how crude and unrefined that goal might be, it is still the hope and expectation of all the neighboring countries and other countries concerned. Nevertheless, the six participating countries have not been able to take pragmatic steps toward attaining that goal. Particularly serious among the problems that the six-party talks process has failed to address is the structure of the crisis, at the bottom of which lies a profound mutual distrust that is deeply embedded among the nations of Northeast Asia.

Located between a continent and an ocean, the Korean Peninsula has always suffered from the geopolitical liability of its exposure to pressures from neighboring countries. Unable to dispose of the remnants and relics of the cold war and the “hot war” associated with it - the Korean War - it is still permeated by the rule of the jungle. The people of North and South Korea have confronted each other for more than half a century, figuratively dying to be unified but scared to death of being unified. Although the histories of Japan, China, and Korea are highly interwoven and to a large extent inseparable, the countries themselves do not share a vision of peace and order in Northeast Asia, either in their past or for their future. Japan, China, and Korea have been viewing their own histories separately. And when they view the past from their own perspective, the past is even more unpredictable than the future.

The second Korean nuclear crisis is a multilayered affair, one composed of North Korea’s identity crisis coupled with a regime crisis, a worldwide crisis with respect to nuclear proliferation, and a crisis of trust among the nations of Northeast Asia, which has become like a cold Balkan Peninsula.

(53) Christopher R. Hill, U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, North Korea: U.S. Policy Options: Hearing before the Committee on Foreign Relations, 109th Con.g., 2nd sess., July 20, 2006.

(54) Interview with a U.S. administration official, Washington, August 28, 2006.

(55) James Kelly, interview, Beijing, June 26, 2004.

Copyright © 2007 The Brookings Institution