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U.S. Fumbles on N. Korea, and China Grabs the Ball

Frank Gibney, professor of politics at Pomona College, is president of the Pacific Basin Institute and author of "The Pacific Century" and other works on Asia.

“Diplomacy,” Britain’s arch-diplomat Harold Nicholson wrote, “is not an end but a means; not a purpose but a method. It seeks, by the use of reason, conciliation and the exchange of interests, to prevent major conflicts from arising between sovereign states.”

In two years of trying to end North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, President Bush has turned every one of Nicholson’s principles inside out. U.S. diplomacy has been uncompromising and almost totally reactive. At times, it seemed to be simply waiting for Kim Jong Il’s truculent regime to give up -- or, better, to break up. As a result, instead of concluding a viable nonaggression pact with the United States in exchange for abandoning its quest for nukes, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is probably making nuclear bombs. The administration’s apparent nonchalance toward this development is truly stunning inasmuch as the American public was told that we went to war to prevent Iraq from acquiring such weapons of mass destruction.

U.S. diplomacy has shot itself in the foot in another way too. As the course of current negotiations strongly suggests, China is displacing America as the arbiter and power broker in East Asia. How did this happen?

North Korea’s incompetent economic management and totalitarian politics have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of its citizens. Thousands more are trying to escape. Still, its million-man army remains massed north of the border with South Korea, guns and missiles pointed at Seoul.

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Nonetheless, Kim’s house of cards has grown unsteady and vulnerable in the last 10 years. He and his party bosses seem desperate for economic change. To save themselves, they need help from the outside world -- from the United States, in particular. The only way to get that help was to play the nuclear card. In essence, they proposed a primitive trade-off: Give us food and energy, and we will shut down our nuclear weapons program.

In 1994, a precarious deal was struck. North Korea received aid and fuel supplies from the United States, Japan and South Korea in return for cutting back its nuclear capabilities. By 2001, however, the agreement had become badly frayed. Both sides were lax in fulfilling their commitments. Some reinforcement was needed.

Enter the Bush administration. It scrapped the agreement and tartly told Kim he had to cease any and all efforts at making nuclear bombs before any new deal could be negotiated. For the U.S. to sign a quid pro quo pact with North Korea, the president announced, would be “blackmail.” John R. Bolton, a protege of former Sen. Jesse Helms and a veteran neoconservative attack dog, was put in charge of Korea policy. He wasted no time in harshly reiterating the administration’s demand that North Korea first dismantle its nuclear program before receiving any U.S. aid. And he went a step further, implying that regime change was the preferred objective.

The administration’s dismissal of negotiations and belligerent stand ran counter to thinking in South Korea that the North was trying to change its spots. South Korea’s “sunshine policy” of accommodating the North languished from lack of U.S. support, which only served to intensify a rising anti-Americanism in the South. The administration’s new policy of preemptive attack, vividly illustrated in the U.S.-led war against Iraq, exacerbated the situation. Rightly or wrongly, the South Korean public ultimately wanted unification, not confrontation, with the North.

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Many in the State Department understood this. Most U.S. Korea-watchers believe Kim, despite his bluster, fears his days are numbered. North Korea’s repeated overtures for one-on-one talks with the U.S. were thus not just posturing. To these observers, Pyongyang’s announced intention to demobilize some troops, Kim’s admission of past government-sponsored kidnappings in Japan, even North Korea’s confirmation that it has a secret highly enriched uranium program, seemed more like bargaining chips than belligerence.

Multilateral talks arranged at the insistence of the U.S. to put pressure on the North have highlighted the administration’s refusal to believe that Kim would ever be sincere. Although South Korea, Japan, Russia and China also participated in the meetings held in Beijing, it was clear that the North Koreans cared only about securing an agreement with the U.S., because to them, Washington is the only probable aggressor. The U.S. refused to consider this, prompting Chinese representatives to complain about the two “extremist” positions.

During Bush’s lightning tour of Asia last week, he seemed to give some ground on signing a nonaggression pact with North Korea when he said the U.S. might consider an “agreement with a small ‘a,’ ” to quote a senior administration official. But the initial North Korean response was not encouraging. One official called it “laughable.”

The failure of the U.S. to deal with North Korea’s threat to Asian security has opened the door for China to play the role of arbiter. Once the regional “bad boy,” the People’s Republic of China has turned to a benign multilateralism to make its imprint. China’s new president, Hu Jintao, seems to be building on his predecessor’s policy of expanding his nation’s circle of friends. China is now South Korea’s largest trading partner. What’s more, as the South Korean public’s animosity toward the United States deepens, Seoul’s cultural and political interests are shifting toward Beijing. Tourists now go back and forth between the two countries. Some 24,000 South Koreans are studying in China. Support for China in South Korean opinion polls has soared as U.S. foreign policy has fallen out of favor. Buoyed by continuing economic progress, the Middle Kingdom is back in circulation.

Playing down old regional quarrels, China wants a free-trade agreement with the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations. “A more developed and stronger China,” Premier Wen Jiabao recently told a conference of ASEAN leaders, “will bring about development opportunities and tangible benefits to other Asian countries.”

Additional regional meetings, like the joint China-Japan-South Korea conference, continue. President Hu has held talks with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in an effort to patch up their two countries’ often-troubled relationship. Chinese diplomats, who once routinely shunned international meetings, now play a large role at the United Nations. Technology exchanges with other Asian countries are multiplying. China’s successful space flight strengthens the now-widespread feeling among East Asian nations that they don’t have to go to the West for innovation. And once-strong international political pressure to relax Beijing’s hold on Hong Kong democracy has tapered off.

As the Bush administration’s North Korea policy is looking more and more like unilateral strong-arming, the Chinese seem to have taken Nicholson to heart by pursuing multinational negotiations to achieve their foreign-policy goals.


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