A Hotter Potato in Northeast Asia

In this age of global economic and political uncertainties, Northeast Asia was gripped by North Korea's April 5 event to launch an experimental communications satellite into orbit. Consequently, the event marked the isolated communist state's return to the world stage or at least it seemed, although the US and its allies claim that it failed technically.

North Korea's testing was enough to turn Northeast Asia into a volatile area susceptible to a future arms race, regardless of its technical failure as a satellite. What's important is that North Korea not only demonstrated its capability to launch long-range missile passing over the territories of Japan but provided a good excuse for Japan as well. Whether by design or not, North Korea has become a hotter potato in the region by giving Japan enough political and military room to speed up its militarization.

Groping for the appropriate timing of strengthening its military build-up, Japan has no reason to hesitate the delayed trajectory toward the ‘erstwhile military power Japan.' It is thus easy to understand that Japan hurriedly demanded sanctions for the isolated communist country for the launch, while calling for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council. In a sense, it is safer to say that Japan's over-response to the North's rocket launch has something to do with the changed political landscape in a conservative Japan.

In contrast, South Korea and the United States alike, even if they made a tough statement putting the already announced launching on the UN Security Council, have maintained a relatively cautious and low-key position by warning against any broader military response. It's because they recognize that international sanctions are far less effective than they can expect, unless China and Russia that are reluctant to join the global punishment against North Korea endorse the punitive measures.

In particular, China must be much concerned about the possibility of the upgraded direct talks between Washington and Pyongyang putting aside the existing six-party talks hosted by China, only if the rocket launch goes beyond a communications satellite issue.

Emerging as a de facto hegemonic state in the region, China feels uneasy about the Obama administration's excessive interest in the North. Needless to say, visits by a handful of American North Korea experts and politicians' frequent visits to North Korea distress China. While monitoring carefully the results of their visits, Washington wants Beijing to take a proactive role in resolving the troubled nuclear weapons program concocted by Pyongyang. In realpolitik terms, China is the only country that can force Kim Jong-il to stop his nuclear ambitions.

Yet the real problem is that, unlike the long range missiles, the nuclear weapons are by no means exchanged by ‘money.' North Korea continually demands its regime's survival from the United States in return for the abandonment of its nuclear weapons. In the capricious negotiation process toward the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, it is clear that North Korea will take the well-known salami tactic of slicing up the nuclear issues piece by piece to garner the most advantage gains from the Obama administration, whose North Korea policy is still under review in the State Department and the National Security Council.

North Korea might consider that the recent rocket launch successfully locked the Obama administration into bilateral talks over the missile issue, not the nuclear weapons program. So it is unlikely that North Korea will give up its nuclear weapons for a longer time, given Kim's Stalinist regime is emphasizing the year 2012 as the target year of establishing the "military first state."

North Korea is the only country on the earth where the legacy of the Cold War and nuclear weapons exist together. Realistically speaking, however, Obama's expectations for North Korea without nuclear weapons cannot be achieved without cooperation from a China that has gained the upper hand over North Korea.

That said, China as Pyongyang's biggest trading partner is a crucial factor motivating the promising but currently-stalled six-party talks where the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia join. It means that the success or failure of the talks would depend largely on China's willingness to act as the mediator. Furthermore, the U.S. in the clutches of an economic crisis is no longer able to handle the China, the largest U.S. bond buyer, at its disposal. Japan's possible military strengthening through the help of the United States would certainly lead to another beginning of the crisis in the region that took place in the early 1900s.

North Korea's provocative actions cannot be ignored as if nothing happened and should be discussed on the UN Security Council. No countries are allowed to turn the potentially military acts into a simple happening. At the same time, there should be consensus in principle on the normalization of the six-party talks to resolve the rocket-relevant issue, to say nothing of the outstanding nuclear weapons program. And all the countries concerned should agree to abstain from any actions that might endanger the peace process in the region.

On cue, South Korean president Lee Myung-bak appeared not to provoke the wrath of North Korea any more than necessary in an interview with the Financial Times, saying that "Our ultimate objective is to convince North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons and usher in an era where the two Koreas are able to co-exist. For us to go the other way, taking a harder stance, I don't think that would be helpful in achieving that ultimate objective."

It's time that the U.S. and China should take any reasonable and responsible measures they can to keep the talks going, since the talks body, not the UN, is the only solution to keep the peculiar North Korean leader's cool. In particular, the Obama administration needs to make North Korea think that the communist regime could be safer and more prosperous without nuclear weapons.

Plus, Washington should persuade Seoul to start laying the groundwork for the indirect talks with Pyongyang, while cautioning Japan to stop any efforts to expand reckless military power. That is the very smart diplomacy that the Obama administration is seeking.

Byong-chul Lee served as foreign and national security policy planning staff member at the Presidential Office of South Korea from 1993 to 1999. He's also senior fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation, a nonpartisan policy advisory body based in Seoul.