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[Opinion] America Can Be Asia’s Copilot
N. Korean nuclear arms talks show China's regional power
Lee Byong-Chol (merrycow)     Print Article 
Published 2010-01-29 14:29 (KST)   
This article is only lightly edited.  <Editor's Note>
During the U.S. presidential election in 2008, Democratic candidate Barack Obama said that he would "pursue a tough, smart and principled national security strategy," while "securing all nuclear weapons and materials from terrorists and rogue states."

After the triumph, President Obama made a strategic decision to break with the Bush years, deleting the Axis of Evil rhetoric, which had previously been ascribed to North Korea. Mr. Obama also pledged to sit down with adversaries. Many pundits expected, at the time, that his policy shift would likely mark a starting point of establishing a good relationship between Washington and Pyongyang.

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[Opinion] America Can Be Asia’s Copilot
The Obama administration interpreted the nature of North Korean nuclear issue in a completely different way. The administration saw the long headache of an issue as an antipathy of George W. Bush's unilateral neo-conservatism, and began its radical approach. It backfired.

A clear majority of skeptics felt the clueless campaign rhetoric-like approach clashed with reality.

On cue, South Korea added another layer of outrage from North Korea, instead of building mutual trust. South Korean president Lee Myung-bak claimed in a prepared text for a radio address in early 2009 that "rather than trying to be nice to North Korea at the start and ending up with poor results, I believe it's better to end up with good results."

The right-wing South Korean president calls himself a card-carrying pragmatist on the grounds that principled and transparent assistance works better than the non-conditional aid to limit North Korea's nuclear program. As a result, Seoul has been caught in a seemingly self-hypnotism of the groundless optimism that Washington would keep a "tough diplomacy" to Pyongyang. The regime in Pyongyang instantly judged that Seoul and Washington have been already out of touch with the negotiations through diplomacy. Outraged, North Korea started escalating the degree of threat and blackmailing again.

Although president Obama pressed the brutal regime in the North to abandon its foolhardy nuclear programs or the U.S. would consider fresh and robust economic sanctions, there are very few to believe that the sanctions will be pursued in near term. North Korea assumes that the Obama administration will not pursue serious negotiations to concentrate immense powers in the denuclearization of North Korea.

In the course of Washington's hesitance, Pyongyang's nuclear ambition mushrooms. The question is why Mr. Obama and his foreign policy team find it so hard to achieve the North Korea's denuclearization.

First, they judged incorrectly that the North could abandon its long-dormant aspirations of becoming a nuclear state, in the event of the offering of economic assistance, diplomatic normalization, and security guarantees. Yet the North merely wanted to 'date America' rather than 'hurriedly marry,' while struggling to keep a thin lifeline directly connected to China. So, it was an extreme naivete that there must be a way to checkmate the poverty-stricken communist regime. Figuratively speaking, the dowry given by America eventually failed to satisfy the self-complacent North. Now that Mr. Obama's popularity is down the road, it would be suicide to continue to 'suck the tax-payers' blood,' such as economic assistance, to energize its commitment to resolving the never-ending nuclear deal.

Second, the Obama administration failed to predict the overwhelming immensity of Chinese influence over the whole matter of North Korea including the denuclearization.

Not only can China help to bridge the gap between the U.S. and North Korea, but it can also serve to widen it when such distance serves its purposes. Geographically and militarily, China is the fastest to enter the North Korean territory in case a contingency happens in its neighboring country. As it reaches the pinnacle of global power, China is now able to insulate the Kim regime from any external threats -- economically and militarily.

Right now, China seems to require America to equally view the Chinese influence as the American hyperpower, stating that "This is not the right time or right moment for sanctions because diplomatic efforts are still going on" with regard to the speed and direction of the denuclearization. The administration wasted more than one year trying to negotiate with North Korea and to embrace the eventual goal of a world free of nuclear weapons. With the Chinese selective engagement activated, the nuclear negotiations have taken a backseat in the long run.

Third, China's strategic recalcitrance on the nuclear deal is inevitable, given that how the North Korean nuclear issue ends can determine the extent of the American national interest in the peninsula.

Unstoppable growth of China's economy is reshaping a security environment in Northeast Asia, and by controlling the nuclear issue, it shows the U.S. that the region can be no longer a playground for America only. It shows that Asia can be led by the undemocratic China, not by America. Unlike Russia, the loser of the Cold War, China is patiently awaiting it's so-called Golden Age again by hiding much of its actions.

Many of the conflicts between Washington and Beijing will persist, but the legacy of U.S.-China suggests they can be mitigated if the U.S. treats China with increased respect and trust. For this, the Obama administration needs to move closer to Asia, where its traditional allies find themselves insecure and cautious as China newly emerges as a power state. Now that any attempt to decouple these allies from the U.S. is more likely to threaten the regional security and stability than ever, Asia is looking for clear American leadership.
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