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July 2006

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On the afternoon of July 4th (U. S. time), North Korea defied warnings and prompted an international crisis when it launched six missiles into the Sea of Japan and failed in an attempt to launch a seventh that presumably had sufficient range to reach American territory. Having little faith in resuming the stalled six-party talks and wary of calls to punish North Korea for its provocative behavior, Zhiqun Zhu claims that the present situation provides an opportunity for fruitful direct talks between the United States and North Korea.—Cont. Ed.

North Korean Missiles: Crisis Or Opportunity? by Zhiqun Zhu

Defying expressions of deep concern and stern warnings from the international community, North Korea test-fired seven missiles, including a long-range Taepodong 2, in the early morning hours of July 5th (around 2:30pm ET, July 4th, in the United States). The timing of the launches, from multiple locations, prompted speculation that North Korea sought to provoke the United States as it planned to celebrate Independence Day with the successful launch of space shuttle Discovery.

The new crisis brewing in Northeast Asia has sent shockwaves beyond the region. Responding immediately, Japan and the United States strongly condemned the tests. President Bush's National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley described the missile launches as “provocative behavior.” The United Nations Security Council convened an emergency meeting to coordinate international responses. The launching makes it extremely difficult for South Korea to continue its policy of providing aid and investment to the North, a program that has caused deep rifts with the United States. Opponents of the government's engagement policy toward the North might benefit in next year's presidential election. The missile tests also embarrass and even infuriate China, which just a few days ago proposed an informal meeting of the stalled six-party talks.

Now that North Korea has tested the missiles, what will the international community and the United States do? Economic sanctions and continued political isolation are obvious options. But will they be sufficient to solve the fundamental problem? How might the interested parties handle this crisis judiciously?

In Chinese, the word "crisis” has two components: danger and opportunity. While most consider North Korea's latest act both a crisis and a danger to regional security, few realize that it could also become a new opportunity for promoting peace and stability in East Asia.

First of all, the crisis provides an opportunity to reevaluate the effectiveness of the six-party talks and reassess America's "no direct talks" policy.

North Korea's missile tests will only further isolate it from the international community. No country will support North Korea's adventurous behavior. Its testing has prompted almost unanimous condemnation from around the world. Perhaps foreseeing such responses, North Korea called for direct dialogue with the United States before the launches. Deputy Chief of North Korea's UN mission, Han Song-ryol, told the Yonhap news agency that the United States needs to conduct negotiations with North Korea to resolve the current conflict. As expected, the United States bluntly rejected North Korea's request. It also turned down North Korea's earlier invitation to U. S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill to visit Pyongyang.


North Korea launched NO-DONG and TAEPO-DONG 2 missiles.

North Korea's message seemed clear: If concerned about its missile test or nuclear program, the United States needs to talk directly with North Korea. So far Washington has insisted that dialogue with North Korea occur only through the six-party talks.

In a calm and encouraging statement issued shortly after the North Korea's latest missile launches, the White House said the United States “remains committed to a peaceful diplomatic solution” to the North Korean nuclear issue. Because the United States has recently made diplomatic overtures to Iran with a package of incentives, and since the United States already interacted with North Korea within the framework of the six-party talks in the past, one wonders why the United States cannot take a step further to talk to North Korea one-on-one, especially during a crisis.

In view of its undesirable outcome, America's "no direct talks" policy should probably be revamped. The more the United States eschews direct negotiations with North Korea, the longer the current stalemate may persist. The six-party talks as a multilateral forum for security dialogue should be preserved, but time has come for the United States to talk to North Korea directly. Bilateral talks offer an alternative channel for conflict resolution when six-party talks have entered an impasse. Negotiating with the Kim Jong-il regime directly does not reward its behavior but aims at solving problems.

Second, while penalizing North Korea for its reckless conduct is warranted, the crisis also provides an opportunity for the United States and other countries involved to address North Korea's concerns seriously.

For negotiations to be successful, North Korea's expressed concerns need to be addressed properly. For a long time, North Korea has suggested that, in exchange for its abandoning the nuclear program, the U. S. should extend diplomatic recognition to North Korea, sign a non-aggression treaty with it, and provide economic aid to its troubled economy. Without security and aid assurances, North Korea refuses to abandon its nuclear program. The United States has no obligation to meet all North Korea's requests, but it probably needs to pause and ask: Can it simply dismiss North Korea's concerns? While blackmailing represents an unaccepted way to conduct business in international relations, a small shrimp has the right to survive and protect itself among a group of seemingly menacing whales.

North Korea's concerns derive from its fear that the United States intends to topple the Kim regime, much as the United States overthrew that of Saddam Hussein. Although the United States has publicly announced that it does not seek regime change in North Korea, the Kim Jong-il government remains suspicious and has requested a written security guarantee. North Korea has also argued that denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula requires actions from both sides. It asserts that if North Korea started to dismantle its nuclear program, the United States must take corresponding measures to withdraw nuclear weapons in and near Northeast Asia. The United States terminated shipments of fuel oil to North Korea in October 2002 in response to North Korea's resumption of its nuclear program. North Korea now also demands an economic aid guarantee from the United States as an incentive for its denuclearization efforts.

With adjustments in forward deployment, U. S. forces in northeast Asia may be slimmer, but they are more powerful. The United States and Japan have agreed to deploy advanced Patriot interceptor missiles on American bases in Japan. A full-scale theater missile defense program has also begun development. The United States conducted a series of military exercises in the Asia Pacific region recently. From North Korea's perspective, the United States has stepped up its menace to North Korea. As North Korea feels threatened, the United States should not expect the Kim regime to continue its self-imposed moratorium on missile testing unless rewards are forthcoming.

Some may argue that the Clinton administration tried and reached an agreement with North Korea in 1994, but it did not work. Lest we forget, neither side abided by the Agreed Framework in good faith. The Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO), formed in 1995 to implement the 1994 Agreed Framework, promised to complete two light-water nuclear reactors for North Korea by 2003, and, in return, North Korea would freeze its nuclear program. South Korea, which had agreed to bear the lion's share of the reactor project cost estimated at $4.5 billion, asked the United States to put up at least a symbolic amount. The U. S. government, however, said it could make no contribution to the construction cost as Congress had not appropriated the necessary amount. South Korean officials said the Åmerican refusal to share the reactor cost made it difficult for them to obtain approval from the ROK National Assembly for the South Korean share. While the two allies debated how to finance the project, North Korea secretly resumed its nuclear research program. The Agreed Framework constituted a good basis for peacefully resolving the dispute; unfortunately it was not carried out in earnest by either side.

Third, in dealing with the current crisis, countries in the region must develop new strategies to enhance Northeast Asian security in the long term.

Few international conflicts are as volatile, protracted, or seemingly insoluble as the one on the Korean Peninsula. In Northeast Asia the interests of four major powers-the United States, China, Japan, and Russia-intersect, which makes the peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula of great concern to the region and beyond.

Bogged down in Iraq, the United States has not paid enough attention to Northeast Asian security in recent years. In addition, the United States and Japan have fallen into a vicious cycle in dealing with North Korea. They have warned North Korea: Unconditionally abandon your nuclear program or expect punishment. North Korea has become accustomed to such bellicose approaches and remains defiant. As a result, security in Northeast Asia has worsened.

After President Bush labeled the North Korea regime as part of the “axis of evil” in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it became extremely difficult for the two sides to trust each other. The two sides also engaged in a name-calling competition. U. S. officials called Kim Jong-il a “despot” and a “tyrannical dictator,” while North Korea referred to a senior American representatiave as “human scum” and a “bloodsucker.” We may recall that during the Cold War, President Ronald Reagan, who genuinely despised communism and condemned the “evil empire” of the Soviet Union, never personally insulted Soviet leaders with whom he had to negotiate. Everyone values face, perhaps particularly so in an Asian context. The United States and North Korea must start to improve their relations by first building trust.

Taking advantage of the apparently different approaches by the United States and Japan, on the one hand, and China and South Korea, on the other, North Korean leaders now confidently buy time in order to extract more concessions from the United States and the international community. The latest crisis will hopefully convince the United States, Japan, China, South Korea and Russia—major stake-holders on this matter—to pursue a new strategy. This new strategy must combine firm principles with reasonable incentives, with a view to achieving long-term peace and stability. These countries must speak with one voice to North Korea. The major powers should tell North Korea, loud and clear, that it must immediately terminate its nuclear program and that it must stop proliferating weapons of mass destruction and weapons technology. In return, the United States should consider signing a non-aggression treaty with North Korea. Both the United States and Japan should also continue the process of normalizing relations with North Korea. No games should be played.

Peace requires more than elimination of weapons of mass destruction. In the long run, the entire Korean Peninsula requires economic development and political democracy in order to achieve peace and stability. The international community should therefore help integrate North Korea into the regional and global political economy. Northeast Asia is an area that lacks a much-needed multilateral security structure. Establishment of a regional security framework, perhaps based on the six-party talks, would prevent crises from recurring in Northeast Asia. The great challenge facing all parties involved is how to turn the current missile crisis into an opportunity for enhancing long-term peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia.


Dr. Zhiqun Zhu is an assistant professor of International political economy and diplomacy at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut. He is currently a POSCO Fellow at the East-West Center in Hawaii. Professor Zhu ia the author of US-China Relations in the 21st Century: Power Transition and Peace (London and New York: Routledge, 2006).

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