Thursday, December 01, 2005

North Korea and American Isolationism

The remaining two members of the "Axis of Evil" are slow motion crises with the potential to come to boil sooner or later. The essential question is whether the United States, with support from Europe and Japan, can succeed in forcing Iran and North Korea to swear off nuclear weapons without resorting to war. Today, in the wake of Iraq, it seems unlikely that the US can credibly threaten to resort to war absent a clear casus belli - there isn't the domestic consensus for it. In the case of North Korea, the costs of a war could be very heavy for South Korea and there seems to be little appetite there for a confrontational policy. Neither is it likely that China would wink at a major conflict with its long time client.

Boxed in by these constraints the US has had to resort to trading favors for North Korean cooperation. While a breakthrough was heralded in the September 19th six-party talks statement, the sceptics have seen it is as another North Korean success in trading nothing for something. Nicholas Eberstadt of the AEI is a long time North Korea watcher and sceptic and what he has to say on the matter is worth reading.

One of this central points is that North Korea's strategic goal is untangling the US-South Korean alliance:

Washington initially resisted the DPRK's surreal proposal for an international acceptance of peaceful North Korean nuclear power. Once the Chinese and South Korean governments indicated that they were prepared to endorse this fiction, however, the U.S. government signed on, too. As to the endorsed goal of . . . verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, this formula conjoins the objective of dismantling the North's nukes with the notion of making South Korea nuke-free. But since the latter has never made nuclear weapons--and since all U.S. nuclear weapons were removed from there fifteen years ago--how is the corollary to work?

Pyongyang's rhetorical syllogism depends entirely upon the existence of the U.S.-Seoul military alliance. So long as the United States is treaty-bound to South Korea's defense, Pyongyang maintains that any and all means of American security protections--including nuclear guarantees--naturally cover the South. In this logic, the only way by which the southern portion of the Korean peninsula can be denuclearized is by severing the U.S.-South Korean military alliance, by withdrawing all U.S. forces from South Korea, and by leaving South Korea outside the U.S. security perimeter (as it seemed to be in early 1950).

It seems not unreasonable to wonder whether two years from now if the sceptics turn out to be right, whether the conjunction of American exasperation and South Korean anti-Americanism might not precipitate such an outcome? For evidence of rising isolationist sentiment in the US see here.

This is the general danger to Asia from significant foreign policy reversals for the US - an isolationist turn which would leave the task of balancing China much more in the inexperienced hands of the natives.


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