Remarks to Conference on the Impact of Deteriorating North-South Relations on Six-Party Process

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Sponsored by USKI, CSIS, and USIP

Alan D. Romberg
The Henry L. Stimson Center
April 16, 2009

One is tempted to begin—and perhaps end—remarks on this topic by asking “What Six-Party Process”? The finality of the announcement that North Korea would “never” again participate in such talks—which echoed the threat contained in the foreign ministry statement that had preceded the April 5 launch—is more definitive than any statement by Pyongyang in the past that I can recall.

Often statements have said that “the basis for” the talks would be destroyed if such-and-such happened, or that “so-and-so” (usually Japan) had unbearably insulted the DPRK and the North would no longer consider it a negotiating partner.

But I am not aware they have said “never” before in this context. Thus, while I think that we do not necessarily have to take this as the absolute last word—any government can change policy, and the North often does—and that walking away from these talks does not mean that Pyongyang will be unwilling to engage in negotiations in the future, I think we have to take it very seriously.

Similarly, I think we have to take seriously that they will now take “strong measures” both in the nuclear area and likely beyond that. They will do this to “demonstrate” their seriousness as well as to take advantage of the situation that they have created in order to advance various aspects of their defense effort for what we might call “military” reasons.

That is, just as they engaged in the April 5 launch to test and advance their ballistic missile capability, I am sure they have long planned further steps that they now will take to strengthen their other deterrent and war-fighting capabilities. Whether they will detonate another nuclear device is unknown at this point. Nevertheless, there was a Choson Sinbo article about a week before the launch that argued—again, for the first time ever to my knowledge—that the October 2006 nuclear test was a direct reaction to the UN Security Council resolution of condemnation following the missile test that July; the article sought to draw a direct parallel to the situation now. Choson Sinbo did not say that there would be another nuclear test if the UN Security Council condemned the launch, but it certainly meant to leave that implication.

Whatever the steps the North now takes, we can assume they will be provocative and may well make it harder to return to talks. After all, right now the United States, South Korea and the others want to return to the Six-Party table; it is the North that is saying “never.” But depending on what Pyongyang now does, it could cause at least some of the others to adopt a harder-line position on resuming negotiations.

As to the rationale for the North’s approach, most people think the North plans on a hiatus in talks for some months during which it can advance it capabilities, but that then the world—and the United States in particular?will chase after it. Moreover, there is a strong view that based on past U.S. behavior, the North assumes that the United States will be willing to do so more or less on the North’s terms. Often cited is the bad example of the Bush administration’s general unwillingness to talk with the North before 2005/2006, but then rushing back to the table after the nuclear test. This argument suggests that the North believes that the more dangerous the activities it undertakes—as long as they fall short of outright aggression—the more the U.S. and others will want to lure them back to the table.

Others disagree, and think that, contrary to its previous aim of ditching Six-Party and engaging the United States bilaterally, this time the North’s aim may be different. They say that now the North may not feel it needs the United States as much, and that, in any case, their real purpose is largely to deal with internal matters, including succession, on the assumption that as long as they do not engage in military action, they will be left alone—surviving, as before, with China’s help.

How does the deterioration in North-South relations affect all of this? If one assumes that the North still aims at forcing the United States to engage in bilateral talks, cutting the ROK out, I believe that the North may be seriously miscalculating. Recall that, although the Bush administration came into office saying it wanted to upgrade the importance of American alliances, it later changed its priorities, and in particular was willing to engage the North largely on its own albeit within a façade of Six-Party Talks. Although President Obama has said very much the same thing about upgrading alliances, the premises and goals today are quite different and thus my sense of the South’s role is as well.

President Bush’s approach was based on the premise, quite erroneous in my view, that President Clinton had downgraded U.S. alliances in Northeast Asia as it had pursued a “strategic partnership” with China, and Mr. Bush sought to reverse that priority. He quickly abandoned that approach, however, even before 9-11, when he realized that downgrading relations with China was unwise. I would argue that while he did not then seek to reduce the importance of the alliances, that is, in fact, what happened. People engaged in running the alliance day-to-day would probably argue with that conclusion, but in overall terms it is indisputable that alliances were at the very least more tentative at the end of Bush’s second term than when he entered office. And it is certainly the case that, even though consultations continued, the role of the allies in determining the approach to the DPRK was diminished.

President Obama’s expressed commitment to strengthen the alliances, on the other hand, is not based on downgrading relations with China. Thus it is more solidly grounded in a broad-gauged definition of American national interest. So in dealing with our allies, there will be no readjustment of priorities, and the emphasis on doing more together globally will be accompanied by a firm commitment to adopting measures to bridge the gaps on dealing with North Korea that have emerged over time.

It is from this perspective that I think the North may be seriously misreading the willingness of the United States to cooperate and to adopt an approach that effectively excludes our allies—and China—from the negotiating room.

Why might the North think otherwise? In part it is, as mentioned earlier, because of past behavior, when Washington seemed quite willing to meet alone, even if it then went through a kabuki of obtaining Six-Party blessing for agreements reached bilaterally. Also, there are signs that the North still harbors the illusion that the United States shares a desire for a strategic bilateral relationship with Pyongyang in order to “balance off” China. The fact is that the Bush administration did not share such a view, nor does Obama, nor would any American president.

It is true that negotiations are aimed at obtaining results that one wants, and therefore one could argue that the more urgent the task, the more likely the United States will be to negotiate. Nevertheless, I think the North errs if it believes that the more outrageous its behavior, the more this will cause the United States to rush back to the table, even if that means subordinating the ROK and others. Indeed, I think any effort to denigrate and marginalize our allies will have the opposite effect. It will only strengthen Washington’s determination to ensure that Seoul plays a central role.

My South Korean colleagues readily acknowledge the critical role of the United States in dealing with the North’s nuclear program. And while such a dominant American role is not ideal from their perspective, they see that it is in their own interest—as long, of course, as positions are fully coordinated and the South is not shunted to the side.

In the recognition that our priorities are not identical, but in the belief that we share basic goals, including the desire to work toward those goals through a strengthened alliance, I think that harmonizing policies and priorities will be vitally important for Washington, and that efforts to split us from Seoul and the others will have the opposite effect.

As to whether South Korea’s own policies will facilitate this, my answer is yes. While the Lee Myung-bak administration’s approach to the North is different from that of its predecessors, President Lee’s policy has in fact not been “hostile” to the North, even in the face of the North’s persistent attacks and even though at the outset some felt as though it would be.

Moreover, President Lee has placed great emphasis on coordination with the United States, mirroring President Obama’s intention. So if U.S.-DPRK relations do not go anywhere, and the North, against all expectation, given its rhetorical attacks on the Lee government, nonetheless resorts to its past practice of seeking to “play the South Korean card” to lure the United States back in, I see no possibility that President Lee will play along. It is implausible that the Korean government, certainly under Mr. Lee but really under any likely ROK leader, would in the future simply decide to opt for such an approach without full coordination with the United States. I say this because I cannot see a way in which it would be in the national interest of the ROK to do that.

One other factor argues against the North reversing course in that way. That is the likely attention right now on dealing with the leadership situation in the DPRK, including issues of succession. In such circumstances, the North will be particularly wary of improving ties with the South, as it fears the “pernicious influence” of the South’s values and attractive power.

Overall, therefore, I think we will likely see a continued frosty relationship between the North and South for the foreseeable future. But while this state of affairs might well consolidate a firm line against what Pyongyang has already done and is likely to do over the next several months, because the goal of denuclearization will remain unchanged, I do not see it complicating the substance of any negotiation that may take place in the future.

I see things in U.S.-ROK relations that need fixing. But I am very confident that, given the strong commitment of both leaders and both governments to make the relationship, and alliance, even more solid than before, these efforts will succeed. Therefore, I believe that any forward progress in dealing with North Korea will require that the North eventually accept a central ROK role in the process, however difficult bilateral relations across the DMZ may be.

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