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Why Threats and Sanctions Will Only Backfire

Dealing With North Korea

by CONN HALLINAN

Most Americans think of North Korea as a nation of belligerent crazy people with a political succession system more akin to the 15th century than the 21st. Indeed, it is a repressive place, with a bizarre personality cult, but the U.S., Japan, and South Korea share much of the blame for the current crisis over nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.

A little history.

In June of last year, North Korea dutifully carried out “Phase Two” of the 2007 Six-Party talks by giving China the details of its plutonium program. In a separate agreement with the U.S., Pyongyang agreed to disclose its uranium enrichment program and any technology proliferation to other countries. In turn, the U.S. would take North Korea off its “state sponsor of terrorism” list.

However, under pressure from the right-wing governments of Japan and South Korea, the Bush Administration moved the goal posts and demanded strict verification procedures before it would fulfill its end of the bargain. Verification, however, was not part of Phase Two, as then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice admitted in a speech to the Heritage Foundation last year. “What we’ve done, in a sense, is to move up issues that were to be taken up in Phase Three, like verification, like access to the reactor, into Phase Two.”

The North Korea responded by halting the dismantlement of its plutonium-producing Yongbyon reactor.

The U.S. then backed off and agreed to modify the verification procedures and, when North Korea accepted these, the White House took Pyongyang off the terror list. But when Japan and South Korea again protested, the Bush Administration reversed course and refused to take North Korea off the terrorism list unless it agreed to the new demands. 

If your foreign policy is schizoid you are liable to make people act crazy. And sure enough, North Korea began testing long-range missiles and carried out a nuclear explosion.

Unfortunately, the Obama Administration is using the same carrot and stick approach that failed so dismally for the Bush administration. “I’m not sure who is giving the president his advice on North Korea, but it is all wrong,” says John Feffer, Korea expert and author of “North Korea, South Korea: U.S. Policy at a Time of Crisis.” Feffer says Obama’s  “show of ‘resolve’ has only made matters worse.”

When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went to Asia she met with relatives of Japanese civilians who have been kidnapped by North Korea. Japanese Prime Minster Taro Aso, a right-wing nationalist who has angered nations throughout Asia with his defense of Japanese behavior in World War II, has used the kidnappings as a way to derail any progress in the Six Party talks.

While the kidnappings were horrendous, Japan can hardly claim the moral high ground in relations between the two nations. Japan’s colonial regime in Korea was especially brutal, a fact that the Aso government refuses to acknowledge. Indeed, Japan still claims several islands that it took from Korea during its 35-year occupation of the peninsula.

Feffer argues that sharp condemnations, like the United Nations resolution that followed the April missile launch, are counterproductive.  “We should have treated it [the missile launch] as a satellite launch and pressed forward with negotiations,” he said. Instead the UN passed an angry resolution, which Feffer compares to “hitting a problem with a baseball bat—except that the problem in this case was a hornet’s nest.”

Feffer says the U.S. also exaggerates North Korea as a military threat. While Pyongyang has a large army, its yearly military budget is about $500 million, one fortieth of South Korea’s and pocket change compared to U.S. arms spending.

According to Leon Siegel, author of “Disarming Strangers: Nuclear Diplomacy with North Korea,” this “punishment approach has never worked in the past and it won’t work now.” Siegel, who also directs the Northeast Cooperative Security Project of the New York Social Science Research Council, says “Sustained diplomatic give-and-take is the only way to stop future North Korean nuclear and missile tests and convince it to halt its nuclear program.”

In short, more sanctions, more threats, and searching ships on the high seas is likely to make the situation worse, not better.

CONN HALLINAN can be reached at: ringoanne@sbcglobal.net