Once again, tension is rising across Asia over North Korea’s missile program. Unlike its previous “surprise” missile launches, Pyongyang this time notified international agencies in advance that it would launch a “satellite” sometime between tomorrow and next Wednesday. The question for the world now is not whether the North Korean regime will launch its missile, but what happens afterward.
The US, Japan and South Korea have already publicly condemned the launch as a “provocative act” and a violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1718, adopted in October 2006, five days after North Korea conducted a nuclear weapons test.
But, instead of hot rhetoric, what is needed now is a cool-headed assessment of the military implications of the missile launch. If Japan, the US and others attempt to intercept or counter the missile, military tension — even possible combat — is likely to ensue. How to prevent unnecessary military measures and countermeasures is the most immediate concern for the region’s governments. Above all, the ongoing six-party talks — China, the US, Japan, Russia, South Korea and North Korea — that have sought to bring Pyongyang’s nuclear program to an end must not become a casualty of the missile launch.
In dealing with North Korea, two fundamental issues must be addressed. First, although governments are justified in criticizing North Korea for its foolhardy, counterproductive and self-destructive behavior over many years, including numerous inhuman acts perpetrated against its own people and others, North Korea is not solely to blame for its “missile tantrum.”
Indeed, the unilateral behavior of the administration of former US president George W. Bush, including the dismantling of the 1994 Geneva Agreed Framework with North Korea, the hyping of an enriched uranium deal and the infamous “axis of evil” speech, have all increased the paranoia of an already paranoid regime. So Bush’s foreign policy toward North Korea, especially during his first term in office, must take a fair share of responsibility for the present mess.
More fundamentally, no one should think that North Korea’s totalitarian communist system can be changed overnight. No one inside or outside can remove its anachronistic dynastic-communist regime, and no outsider can hope to modify quickly the policy behavior of its fossilized military, party and administrative bureaucrats. These are the cold realties of North Korea today.
But cold realities do not necessarily have to turn into hot combat. Indeed, the idea of warfare on the Korean peninsula should be unthinkable, given the grotesque levels of deaths that it would likely cause. Even to contemplate such a possibility is proof of diplomatic failure, not a triumph of real leadership.
A leadership mismatch has, moreover, been a central obstacle in resolving the problem of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction and the ultimate question of achieving a unified Korea. Since the emergence of two separate regimes and systems on the Korean Peninsula in 1948, South Korea and the US (its only defense ally) have dealt with only two “supreme leaders,” Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. During the same period, there have been 10 South Korean presidents and 11 US presidents.
For the past 10 years, three South Korean presidents and three US presidents have been attempting to deal with the same “perpetual” leader — Kim Jong-il. From Kim’s perspective, encountering such leadership changes and subsequent policy clashes are both bewildering and difficult to assimilate. Just on the South Korean side, he has had to cope with former presidents Kim Dae-jung’s “sunshine policy” of engagement, Roh Moo-hyun’s on again, off again diplomacy and President Lee Myung-bak’s confrontational stance. From the US, he has confronted engagement on the part of former US president Bill Clinton, unilateral confrontation from former president George W. Bush and the nascent “principled engagement” of President Barack Obama.