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Don't Blame It on Sunshine
[Analysis] Too little engagement, not too much, the culprit in North Korean nuke test
Timothy Savage (yamanin)     Print Article 
Published 2006-10-18 17:16 (KST)   
North Korea's nuclear test has once again ignited debate over the "failure" of South Korea's "Sunshine Policy" of engagement with North Korea. Opponents of the policy point to the test as proof that "appeasement" of dictators cannot work. They argue that Seoul's engagement of North Korea failed to induce change in Kim Jong-il's regime, and thus that the policy was wrongheaded from the start.

The Bush administration, predictably, has begun blaming the test not on their own failure to engage North Korea, but rather on the Clinton administration's attempts to do so. "We tried bilateral dialogue, and it failed," argued Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on CNN last week.

But has engagement really been a failure? Or perhaps, has it not been really tried?

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If there is one glaring failure in preventing North Korea's nuclearization, it is the inability of the United States and South Korea -- the two countries with the most at stake -- to agree on a common approach toward Pyongyang. During the Clinton administration, the government of then South Korean President Kim Young-sam opposed U.S. concessions to North Korea, believing that the country was on the verge of collapse. Despite that, the U.S. forged the 1994 Agreed Framework over South Korean objections.

While the Clintonites were willing to buck Kim Young-sam, they weren't as keen to face off against the U.S. Congress, after the Republicans grabbed control of both houses in the 1994 elections. As a result, the U.S. government decided to fulfill only the minimum requirements of the agreement, providing North Korea with heavy fuel oil and putting together an international consortium for the light-water reactor project, mostly paid for by South Korea and Japan.

The idea that this limited engagement somehow "propped up" the Kim Jong-il government is ludicrous on the face of it. Even at the height of the energy crisis, the 150,000 tons of heavy fuel oil that the U.S. provided represented a small percentage of the country's energy supplies. Meanwhile, from 1994 to 1999 the U.S. made no progress on the promised improvements in political and commercial relations with North Korea. It was during this time that North Korea is believed to have imported uranium enrichment technology from Pakistan.

Two things then happened to shake the Clinton administration out of its complacency regarding North Korea. First, in December 1997, Kim Dae-jung won the presidential election in South Korea, and began implementing the Sunshine Policy almost immediately upon taking office. Second, in August 1998, North Korea fired a Taepodong rocket that overflew Japan before crashing into the Pacific Ocean when the third stage failed to launch. Under pressure from Congress, Clinton appointed former Defense Secretary William Perry to conduct a review of U.S. policy toward North Korea, which was completed in October 1999. Perry recommended a renewed engagement push to induce North Korea to give up not only its nuclear weapons, but its missile program as well.

It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the 15 months between the publication of the Perry Report and the inauguration of George W. Bush was the only time when U.S. and South Korean policies toward North Korea were fully aligned. This is hardly a significant period of time when compared to over 50 years of division, war and confrontation on the Korean Peninsula.

Shortly after Bush came to power Kim Dae-jung made a hasty visit to Washington, hoping that his status as a fighter for democracy and his unassailable pro-American credentials would be enough to convince a skeptical new president of the value of the sunshine approach. But Bush -- a man who has never accomplished anything in his life without the help of his family connections -- seemed unimpressed to meet someone who had survived three assassination attempts. He rudely dismissed Kim's entreaties and forced then Secretary of State Colin Powell into an embarrassing retraction of his endorsement of engagement.

In response to the revelations about the uranium enrichment program, which was years away from producing any fissile material, the Bush administration scuttled the Agreed Framework, opening a much quicker path for North Korea to build a nuclear bomb by unfreezing its plutonium program. As the New York Times reported on Tuesday, that is exactly the route that Pyongyang took.

The multilateral smokescreen

The Bush administration has defended its insistence on the Six-Party talks approach by claiming that it demonstrates to North Korea that all its neighbors, and not just the United States, opposes its nuclear program. In reality, however, the other four members of the talks have consistently urged the U.S. to take a more flexible approach in negotiations.

At the urging of his good buddy, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, Bush finally took the leash off Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill during the last round of talks in September 2005. As a result, Hill was able to hammer out a joint statement on next steps -- essentially an agreement to agree. Before the ink was dry, however, the neocons around Vice President Dick Cheney began imposing financial sanctions on North Korea for its alleged counterfeiting operations. The refusal to discuss measures for removing the sanctions, and the tightening of them to target even legitimate foreign business in Pyongyang, clearly demonstrate that the true goal of the sanctions was to force North Korea to capitulate on the nuclear issue.

Throughout the negotiations, Washington pundits have consistently blamed China for not doing enough to force North Korea to comply with U.S. wishes. They argue that if China really wants to prevent a nuclearized Korean Peninsula, it should be prepared to use its leverage as Pyongyang's major trade partner to coerce the country into giving up its nukes or facing the likelihood of regime collapse.

Putting aside the strategically questionable policy of ceding policy leadership to your main regional rival, the idea that Beijing would do Washington's bidding is nothing short of fantasy. American policymakers seem to think that the threat of Japan going nuclear in response to North Korea would be sufficient to push China into action.

But given that China already possesses a sizable nuclear arsenal of its own and that Japan is already protected by the U.S. nuclear umbrella, the specter of a nuclear-armed Japan is a manageable risk in the Chinese strategic calculus. A North Korean collapse, on the other hand, would introduce a host of uncertainties -- refugee flows, war, U.S. troops on China's borders -- that would be comparatively more difficult to plan for. Like any other country, China is not going to go against its own interests just to suit the United States.

What could be done better?

The sunshine policy has been faulted for not inducing desired changes in North Korea's behavior. But it was never really designed as a short-term fix for the nuclear program. Rather, the Sunshine Policy was designed as a long-term, slow-motion strategy to achieve reunification by increasing North Korea's dependence on Seoul (and reducing its dependence on Beijing in the process).

That being said, the implementation of the policy has left something to be desired at times. It is true, as critics have often charged, that the South Korean government has been all too willing to give North Korea what it wanted without any questions asked. It is also true that proponents of engagement were often overly cautious about addressing human rights problems, allowing the issue to be co-opted by groups with a regime change agenda.

The answer to this is not to switch to a simplistic notion of "reciprocity," which would only encourage Pyongyang to look for more bargaining chips it can trade away in exchange for cash. Rather, the proper approach would be to ensure that any joint projects with North Korea adhere to international standards.

It is certainly true, as some have pointed out, that the primary "blame" for the test lies with North Korea. But such analysis is distinctly unhelpful. Blaming North Korea for being what it is -- a ruthless dictatorship that refuses to play by international rules -- may provide "moral clarity" for members of the Bush administration, but it hardly serves as a road map for effective policy making. As former U.S. defense secretary William Perry cogently argued in his 1999 review of U.S. policy toward North Korea, "We must deal with North Korea as it is, not as we wish it to be."

The Bush administration has chosen to ignore this advice and instead build a policy based on wish-casting; wishing that North Korea would collapse; wishing that the South Korean electorate would vote for someone more to Washington's liking; wishing that China would agree to do U.S. bidding. The end result was the one scenario that no one wished for.
North Korea has joined the nuclear club. What do you think?  (2006-10-09 ~ 2006-11-13)
The Hermit Kingdom is a real threat to the world.
I'm more worried about Bush's reaction.
It's a ploy. They'd never use a nuke.
All nations have the right to self defense.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Timothy Savage

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