The world’s task in addressing North Korea’s saber rattling is made no easier by the fact that it confronts an impoverished and effectively defeated country. On the contrary, it is in such circumstances that calm foresight is most necessary.
The genius of the Habsburg Empire’s Prince Klemens von Metternich in framing a new international order after the Napoleonic Wars was that he did not push a defeated France into a corner. Although Metternich sought to deter any possible French resurgence, he restored France’s prewar frontiers.
By contrast, as former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger has argued, the victors in World War I could neither deter a defeated Germany nor provide it with incentives to accept the Versailles Treaty. Instead, they imposed harsh terms, hoping to weaken Germany permanently. We know how that plan ended.
Former US president John F. Kennedy was in the Metternich mold. During the Cuban missile crisis, he did not try to humiliate or win a total victory over the Soviet Union. Rather, he put himself in former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s shoes and agreed to dismantle, secretly, US missiles in Turkey and Italy in exchange for withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba. Kennedy’s pragmatism prevented World War III.
Sadly, North Korea has not received such far-sighted statesmanship. Faced with the North’s dangerous nuclear game, we should ask what would have happened if, over the last 20 some years, the North Korea problem had been approached with the sagacity of Metternich and Kennedy.
Of course, North Korea is not early 19th-century France or the USSR of 1962. In the eyes of Western (including Japanese) political leaders, it has never amounted to more than a small, fringe country whose economic failings made it appear to be poised perpetually on the edge of self-destruction.
For the most part, world leaders preferred not to be bothered with North Korea, and so reacted in an ad hoc way whenever it created a security problem.
However, following the North’s recent nuclear tests, and given its improving ballistic-missile capabilities, that approach is no longer tenable.
Perhaps the best chance to address the problem at an earlier stage was immediately after the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991.
Back then, Kim Il-sung — the North’s founder — faced economic collapse, diminution of his conventional military forces and diplomatic isolation.
In interviews with the Asahi Shimbun and the Washington Times in March and April 1992, Kim clearly expressed a wish to establish diplomatic relations with the US. However, US and South Korean leaders were not ready to accommodate Kim’s overture. Their received ideas about North Korea prevented them from recognizing a fast-changing political reality.
Another opportunity was missed later in the decade. If North Korea had reciprocated in a timely manner following then-US envoy William Perry’s visit to Pyongyang in May 1999, former US president Bill Clinton’s policy of engagement with the North might have been upgraded to a push for normalization of diplomatic relations. Instead, the North procrastinated, sending Vice Marshall Jo Myong-rok to the US only in October 2000, near the end of Clinton’s presidency. A few months later, newly elected US president George W. Bush reversed Clinton’s North Korea policy.