Well before President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) peace overture to Beijing required supposed nursing by the international community, many commentators rationalized US President George W. Bush’s unexpected policy volte-face on Taiwan by arguing that the US needed China’s help in the six-party negotiations to disarm a nuclear North Korea. Cognizant of Beijing’s style of diplomacy, in which it never gives freely but always expects something in return, the US and other countries involved in the talks with Pyongyang allowed themselves to become more flexible on a matter they knew was of tremendous importance to China — Taiwan. Some could argue, therefore, that Taipei became the sacrificial lamb to ensure the participation of Beijing — North Korea’s principal diplomatic ally and neighbor — in the disarmament talks.
For a while, it looked like the six-pay talks, launched in 2003, had borne fruit, with Pyongyang agreeing to dismantle its Yongbyon nuclear reactor and allow the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear watchdog, to install seals and cameras at the facility. Academics who saw the outcome with optimism were even hopeful that a mechanism for peace and security could evolve in Northeast Asia, with the six-party talks involving the US, China, Japan, South Korea, North Korea and Russia as a foundation.
But the euphoria did not last, as Pyongyang earlier this month announced it was pulling out of the hard-won disarmament pact, ostensibly over Washington’s failure to meet commitments it had made as part of the deal, including taking North Korea off its list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Days later, it was ordering UN inspectors to remove the seals and cameras that had been installed at Yongbyon and announced it would reactivate the nuclear complex, where refinement could produce plutonium, a main component of nuclear weapons. The North’s military was also reported to have conducted missile tests at a new launch facility in the west.
In and of itself, Pyongyang’s sudden change of heart will have implications on diplomatic efforts to resolve the nuclear issue as well as the ongoing — and not unrelated — hostilities between the two Koreas.
But other developments are sure to magnify the impact of this decision, namely the coming to power in Japan of conservative Prime Minister Taro Aso, who favors a hard line on North Korea (and who will see that decision as confirming his views), ballistic missile defense tests Japan will conduct, with US participation, in November and the deployment of a nuclear-powered US aircraft carrier at the naval port of Yokosuka in the middle of this month.
While it is too early to tell where things are headed — especially in light of news that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is ailing, with scarce intelligence on who could succeed him or assume control of the military should he be incapacitated — all these factors point to a move away from a diplomatic resolution of the North Korean nuclear program and a renewed period of regional tensions.
Furthermore, if we take a step back from the region and bring things to a geostrategic level, it becomes obvious that emerging animosities between Moscow and Washington over Russia’s military adventure in Georgia last month will throw a monkey wrench into any move to create a regional security apparatus, if not revive the six-party talks themselves.
Given the right-of-center “realistic idealism” of US presidential candidate Senator John McCain, who has vociferously opposed Bush’s approach on North Korea, a Republican win in November could also cast a shadow over the future of diplomacy in Northeast Asia.
All these are imponderables and Pyongyang’s choices in the coming weeks will be a principal factor deciding whether diplomacy stands a chance in the Korean Peninsula or if decisionmakers in Washington, Beijing, Tokyo, Seoul and Moscow ultimately reach the conclusion that the key to resolving the problem now lies (as some have long argued) with military force.
Should the latter view gain traction, it is likely Beijing would oppose the use of force against North Korea, for reasons ranging from the risk of a sudden influx of North Korean refugees crossing the border into China to Beijing’s longstanding opposition to the use of force by external powers in its own backyard.
As a side effect to a policy shift on North Korea, whatever influence Beijing had over Washington’s position on Taiwan could vanish, which in turn could weaken the elements in the White House and at the State Department who in the past five years have been willing to sacrifice Taiwan for the sake of China’s role in the North Korean disarmament talks.
While there is nothing to celebrate in the failure of diplomacy to persuade Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear ambitions, a reversal of fortunes—combined with a Taiwan-friendly Japanese prime minister — could bring about a positive shift in policies toward Taiwan, at modicum a lessened sense of isolation. If that opportunity emerges, it should be seized.
J. Michael Cole is a writer based in Taipei.
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