North Korea and the Birth Pangs of a New Northeast Asian Order

In February 2007, agreement was reached at the Six Party talks in Beijing on the parameters for resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue. The frame was one of comprehensive settlement of one of the long unresolved legacies of the 20th century and the prospect it opened was for a new, diplomatic, military, political, and economic order.


This paper asks why the settlement has taken so long to reach, considers the major obstacles to its implementation, and assesses its prospects. It argues that to understand the "North Korea Problem" close attention has to be paid to the "America Problem" and the "Japan Problem." It suggests that, while North Korean strategic objectives have been consistent through the decade and a half of crisis, the US and Japan have vacillated, torn between conservative, neo-conservative, and reactionary forces on the one hand and "realists" on the other. The US strategic shift of February heralds the dawn of a 21st century Northeast Asian order; whether that dawn is to prove a true or false one should be clear by year’s end.


1. The Problem


In the summer and autumn of 2006, as the United Nations Security Council twice denounced North Korea and imposed sanctions on it with seemingly global unanimity, who would have guessed that within one year the prospects for reconciliation could have advanced to the present point?


The deal was reached at the Beijing Six-Party Talks in February: North Korea was to shut down and seal its Yongbyon reactor as first step towards permanent "disablement," while the other parties were to grant it immediate energy aid, with more to come when North Korea presented its detailed inventory of nuclear weapons and facilities to be dismantled. At the same time, the US and Japan were to open talks with North Korea aimed at normalizing relations, while the US was to "begin the process" of removing the designation of North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism and "advance the process" of terminating the application to it of the Trading with the Enemy Act. Five working groups were set up to address the questions of peninsula denuclearization, normalization of DPRK-US relations, normalization of DPRK-Japan relations, economy and energy cooperation, and Northeast Asian peace and security.[1] The Beijing parties promised to "take positive steps to increase mutual trust" and the directly related parties to "negotiate a permanent peace regime on the Korean peninsula."


Shortly after the Agreement, US Deputy Secretary of State Negroponte visited the capitals of this region to explain President Bush’s desire for a permanent peace regime on the peninsula,[2] and US Ambassador Vershbow spoke of the prospect of a treaty to end the Korean War and of relations between his country and North Korea by the spring of 2008.[3] A second South-North Korean summit was held in October 2007 and it is clear that plans proceed in Seoul for a massive "Marshall Plan" scale program of south-north economic cooperation, with an estimated cost over the coming decade of $126 billion.[4] Trains in May crossed between south and north for the first time in 57 years (albeit only on a trial run),[5] and the international (South and North Korea, China, and the US) university, Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, opened in Pyongyang in September 2007. The capitalist enclave of the Gaesong Industrial Complex modestly thrives, with sixty-six South Korean light manufacturing companies operating within it already and another 200 signed up to lease land for further stages in its expansion.[6] Both government and opposition parties in Seoul plan cooperation on the premises of eventual unification, and Seoul’s National Defense Institute is even drawing up plans for a stage-by-stage unification of the armed forces of south and north.[7]


Perhaps even more than these grand plans, it is the small, everyday things that bespeak the new era, such as the North Korean under-17 football squad conducting its training camp on Cheju island.[8]


As of Autumn 2007, North Korea was committed to providing the inventory of nuclear facilities and dismantling them by year’s end, while the US was looking positively at the removal of the designation "terror supporting state" and the lifting of the "trading with the enemy" sanctions; the former Korean War combatants (the US, China, and South Korea) have agreed that, provided North Korea dismantle its nuclear weapons program as promised by December 2007, they will enter upon negotiations to convert the existing armistice into a peace treaty,[9] and Japan has said it is ready for serious and sincere negotiations that will cover both the "unfortunate past" (of colonialism) and the North Korean abductions of the more recent times.[10]


What does this mean? The tectonic plates under East Asia are shifting. North Korea has been the enemy of the US for longer than any state in history, including George lll’s England, Stalin’s the Soviet Union, Mao’s China, Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnam, and Castro’s Cuba, and none of these cases involved a personal sentiment to match the "loathing" of the kind that George W. Bush has expressed for the North Korean leader as "evil", or the ferocity of the Vice-President’s statement: "You do not negotiate with evil, you defeat it." For all of this to be resolved, and resolved peacefully, would be truly historic.


Peace and cooperation begin to seem possible in East Asia, radiating out from the very peninsula that was in the 20th century one of the most violently contested and militarized spots on earth. Japanese colonialism, the division of Korea and its consequent civil and international war, the long isolation of North Korea and its confrontation with the United States and with South Korea, and the bitter hostility between it and Japan: all these things suddenly seem to be negotiable.[11] The historical significance of 2007 will be huge if even a significant part of this promise is fulfilled.


2. The "North Korea Problem" and the "US Problem"


The very term "the North Korea nuclear problem" as framed by American policy makers begs a major question. It assumes that it is North Korea that is irrational, aggressive, nuclear obsessed and dangerous, and the US that is rational, globally responsible, and reacting to North Korean excesses. To thus shrink the frame of the problem is to ignore the matrix of a century’s history — colonialism, division, half a century of Korean War, Cold War as well as nuclear proliferation and intimidation.[12] It is to assume that what it describes as "the North Korean nuclear weapons program" can be dealt with while ignoring the unfinished issues of the Korean War and the Cold War, and even of Japanese imperialism.


What this formulation of the "North Korea problem" ignores is something that I have referred to as the "US problem," the US’s aggressive, militarist hegemonism and contempt for international law.[13] Although North Korea is widely regarded as an "outlaw state" and held in contempt by much of the world, it has not in the past 50 years launched any aggressive war, overthrown any democratically elected government, threatened any neighbor with nuclear weapons, torn up any treaty, or attempted to justify the practices of torture and assassination. Its 2006 missile and nuclear weapons tests were both provocative and unwise, but neither breached any law, and both were carried out under extreme provocation. The North Korean state plainly runs roughshod over the rights of its citizens, but the extremely abnormal circumstances under which it has existed since the founding of the state in 1948, facing the concentrated efforts of the global superpower to isolate, impoverish, and overthrow it, have not been of its choosing. Frozen out of major global institutions and subject to financial and economic sanctions,[14] denounced in fundamentalist terms as "evil" (and beyond redemption), North Korea could scarcely be anything but suspicious and fearful. Suspicion and fear, on the part of a state as well as of an individual, is likely to be expressed in belligerence.


In particular, North Korea has faced the threat of nuclear annihilation for more than half a century. If anything is calculated to drive a people mad, and to generate in it an obsession with unity and survival, and with nuclear weapons as the sine qua non of national security, it must be such an experience. Its demand for relief from nuclear intimidation was unquestionably just and yet was ignored by the global community, till, eventually, as we know, it took the matter into its own hands. Being a small country, however, and one without diplomatic allies, the world’s great and middle-sized powers criticized it while turning a blind eye to the injustice of the system from which it suffered. While the world’s fingers were pointed at North Korea, its eyes were, by and large, averted from the suffering and denial of human rights suffered by the US prisoners at Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo, or the citizens of many countries whom the CIA in recent years has ferried secretly around the world, delivering them to torturers in a global gulag beyond the reach of any law, not to mention US flouting of its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty to dismantle its arsenal.


It is sometimes said that the Cold War ended in 1989 (or even that history itself ended) with the victory of the "Free World" especially the United States, but in East Asia it ended rather with the defeat of "Free World"-supported "national security state" regimes at the hands of the democratic resistance, or "people power," in the Philipp

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