Is the US Thinking About Backpedaling on North Korean Nukes? Will the Pivot Go Wobbly?


Will President Obama become a late and unlikely convert to realpolitik and allow John Kerry to sacrifice America’s nuclear non-proliferation principles on the battered altar of North Korean diplomacy?

And will the fearsome pivot to Asia turn into a dainty pirouette, an American pas de deux with China as the two great powers search for a way to dance around the North Korean nuclear problem?

Potentially, the North Korean nuclear crisis is a good thing for the US and South Korea–and perhaps even for China!—if President Obama is ready to bend on some cherished non-proliferation beliefs.

That’s what the North Korean leadership is begging him to do, amid the nuclear uproar.

His Secretary of State, John Kerry, seems to be interested in getting, if not on the same page, in the same chapter with North Korea, and maybe pick up a geopolitical win (with Chinese acquiescence) similar to the successful effort to push Myanmar (Burma) out of its exclusive near-China orbit.

John Kerry is very much the pragmatist—normalization of US-Vietnam relations was his signature geostrategic success as US Senator—and apparently would enjoy negotiating with the North Koreans and weaning them away from the Chinese at the cost of finessing the nuclear weapons issue.

On the occasion of his press conference in Seoul on April 12, Secretary Kerry had some interesting things to say.

First, in a backhanded way, he repudiated the previous policy of non-engagement, saying [President Park] “wants to try to do to change a mold that obviously has not worked very effectively over the last years”.

Secondly, on the nuke issue he stated: “North Korea will not be accepted as a nuclear power.”

Kerry made the remark in the context of opening the door a crack to discussions, not trying to rally an international coalition to remove an entrenched DPRK nuclear weapons program that otherwise is clearly not going anywhere.

I don’t think I’m reading too much into this statement to interpret it to mean “It will be unacceptably embarrassing to the United States if North Korea tries to compel formal US acceptance of North Korean nukes along the lines of the bullshit deal we did with India, so Pyongyang better be prepared to throw me a goddam bone like, hey, we are also committed to the eventual denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”

Or, in Kerry-speak:

They simply have to be prepared to live up to the international obligations and standards which they have accepted, and make it clear they will move to denuclearization as part of the talks, and those talks could begin.

It also remains to be seen if President Obama will agree with Secretary Kerry (who, I believe, is not a member of the President’s true inner circle temperamentally or ideologically)  that some incremental and perhaps temporary improvement in the North Korean situation is adequate compensation for the muddying of the US pivot and non-proliferation messages.

President Obama’s decision will probably hinge on whether he decides that recent leadership changes—and the potential for tectonic realignments in the region’s geopolitics—present an opportunity worth seizing.

To understand why, one has to look at the complicated geopolitical relations of the major players, the rivals, and the haters, especially South Korea.

All five of the nations directly involved in the current imbroglio on the Korean peninsula experienced leadership transitions over the last six months, either through election (US, Japan, and South Korea), selection (the People’s Republic of China), or demise (the DPRK– Democratic People’s Republic of Korea—a.k.a. North Korea).

The most important change was the one least noticed in the West: the election of Mdme. Park Geun-hye as president of South Korea.

Mdme. Park succeeded Lee Myung-bak, whose intransigent “MB” policy toward North Korea had frozen Korean diplomacy for the last six years.

Mdme. Park’s stated intention is to mix some carrot with the stick in what she calls “trust-politik” in a quest for reunification.  She has put engagement and discussions back on the proposed North-South agenda.

Since the ROK, as the frontline state with the most skin in the Korean game, holds a de facto veto over US North Korean policy, Mdme. Park’s shift means that the Obama administration has the option of transitioning from the policy of “strategic patience” a.k.a. malign neglect that prevailed during the Lee Myung-bak years, to consideration of some kind of engagement with Pyongyang in coordination with Seoul.

Unfortunately, what Pyongyang really needs is something that the United States is loath to grant: some kind of diplomatic and economic rapprochement that includes acceptance of the DPRK’s nuclear weapon and missile programs, which provide the best assurance of continued US forbearance, engagement, and, potentially, active and positive interest in the regime’s survival.

The administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama can shoulder much of the blame for North Korea’s unwillingness to abandon its nukes.  For North Korea, the Iraq invasion highlighted the dangers of being nuke-free in the face of US antipathy; the Libyan adventure (which occurred after Libya’s full denuclearization, return to the good graces of the IAEA, a multi-billion dollar financial settlement, the opening of Libya’s oil industry to Western exploitation, and a restoration of diplomatic relations and security exchanges with the United States) demonstrated that surrendering one’s nukes in return for rapprochement could quickly turn into a death sentence.

It is now generally accepted in the foreign policy establishment that the DPRK in its current configuration will never give up its nuclear weapons.  Indeed, as the current crisis demonstrates, North Korea is committed to testing and improving its arsenal as quickly as possible under the cover of the general uproar.

The nuclear embarrassment is compounded by the fact that North Korea is not content to wait passively for whatever policies that the US and ROK jointly decide, in the spirit of mercy or malice, to impose on the DPRK.

Although the ROK’s new interest in reducing tensions on the peninsula is a prerequisite for America taking another bite out of the rather gamey North Korean negotiating apple, the DPRK does not like to see the United States deferring to Seoul on North Korea issues and thereby letting the initiative pass to South Korea.

It doesn’t want discussion to focus on the ROK’s priority—reunification– which would give the whip hand to President Park and deprive Pyongyang of the opportunity to play divide and rule and lure the United States into a deal that might suit Washington’s geopolitical obsessions (like sticking a finger in China’s eye) while giving shorter shrift to awkward South Korean priorities (like reunification-related reforms, further economic and investment goodies for the ROK in the North or at the very least the promise of some better behavior from Pyongyang).

In order to suit its US-centric negotiating strategy, the DPRK wishes the North Korean issue framed in the context of the US priority–nuclear security.

So the DPRK turns to its cherished geopolitical card, actually its only geopolitical card,  nuclear brinksmanship, in order to demand that the world negotiate with it on its terms—and the United States, as the self-professed guarantor of Asian security and godfather of the global nuclear weapons non-proliferation regime, negotiate directly with Pyongyang instead of huddling with Seoul.

This must be an extremely aggravating dilemma for the White House.

North Korea is, after all, a Burma en ovo—in other words, a socialist Asian regime eager to normalize relations with the United States and free itself of its utter dependence on the overbearing and exploitative mandarins of the PRC for access to Western trade, investment, technology, and diplomatic good offices.

And the DPRK is, through its nuclear posturing, is yelling It’s time for the DPRK and USA to get into a room alone, without the ROK and the PRC, and make a deal that suits us both!

However, explicitly accepting North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is a tough sell for President Obama, for reasons that go beyond the danger of a nuclear DPRK, a stated adversary of the US and ROK (relations are still governed by the armistice that ended the Korean War, and no peace treaty has been signed), or the awkwardness of disappointing the Nobel Peace Prize committee (which awarded the coveted tin to President Obama in anticipation of his future contributions to nuclear non-proliferation, not what he had already done a.k.a. zip).

The key obstacle to adopting a live and let live attitude toward North Korea’s nukes is that neither South Korea nor Japan are interested in living as non-nuclear neighbors to a North Korea that is happily and aggressively developing its nuclear weapons and missile assets.

Thanks to some dubious decision-making by the United States, Japan is a de facto nuclear weapons power, already possessing the technology, space program, and plutonium metal needed to weaponize its nuclear industry.

The Republic of Korea would like to tread the same path as Japan, and is attempting to renegotiate its main nuclear disadvantage vis a vis Japan—the US refusal to let South Korea “close the fuel cycle”  i.e. perform the extraction and refining of plutonium from fuel rods on a variety of plausible pretexts, such as the ROK’s need to offer a full slate of nuclear fuel services as it competes with Japan to sell reactors to the Middle East, or in order to reduce the load of spent fuel rods in its overcrowded cooling ponds.

For its part, the United States is trying to keep the ROK/Japan nuclear weapons genies in the bottle (or, in the case of Japan, try to pretend that the stopper has not already been removed) since, in a region suddenly bristling with prosperous, nuke-wielding powers, the US would be well on the way to losing its self-claimed role as essential security guarantor, arms-race preventer, and beloved pivoteer in the West Pacific.

When Secretary Kerry touts “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” he is also messaging to South Korea that the United States, for selfish as well as good reasons, would like to see the ROK to eschew its own nuclear weapons ambitions and find some other way to manage the unpleasantness of the DPRK’s program.

Ironically, this puts the US on the same page with China, albeit for different reasons (China has reason to worry about actually getting blown up by local nukes, not just suffering an embarrassing loss of regional stature).

However, it appears that the easy solution to the whole regional nuclear arms mess—denuclearizing the DPRK—is not feasible.

The difficult solution—finessing the DPRK nuclear program while managing the anxieties and opportunism of Japan and the ROK—is beyond the unaided efforts of the United States.

The combined, genuine, and active good offices of China, the ROK, and the US are probably required to reassure and reward the DPRK’s understandably paranoid leadership and perform the well-nigh impossible feat of transitioning North Korea from the scary and unacceptable “impoverished dangerous dingbat nuclear weapons dictatorship” category to the acceptable class of “rapidly developing junior partner in Asian prosperity that just happens to be a single-party authoritarian state with nuclear weapon and missile capabilities”, in other words a mini-China.

The United States continues to gag on the nuclear weapons issue, both for some very good reasons relating to the potential for a regional nuclear arms race and a subsequent decline in US clout, and the expectation born of rich experience that whatever deal is made with the DPRK will quickly turn to shit.

But, judging by Secretary Kerry’s remarks, Washington may be enticed by the idea that an incremental US geopolitical win on North Korea and a general easing of Asian tensions might be adequate compensation for the sacrifice of nuclear non-proliferation principles.

The Obama administration, whose first term China policy was characterized by the relentless (and to my mind, counterproductive) zero-sum tensions of the Asian pivot executed by Secretary of State Clinton, may be thinking about using the North Korean crisis as the opportunity for a reset of US-China relations through the incremental pursuit of win-win scenarios under Secretary Kerry.

In a hopeful sign, the discourse over North Korea has recently moved beyond simple-minded  and futile US chest-thumping military displays to some convoluted US messaging apparently inviting China to participate in the North Korean slicing and dicing with the prospect that, in return, the China-containment element of the Asian pivot might be soft-pedaled.

China, intent on sustaining the viability of its North Korean buffer/de facto economic subsidiary, has not yet responded in any meaningful way to Secretary Kerry’s blandishments.

Beijing will probably wait and see if the US can find its own way out of the denuclearization cul-de-sac and offer the plausible prospect of a viable North Korean state that has not become a US/South Korean proxy antagonistic to China (in other words, a socialist state that has partially reconciled with the West but somehow retained its nuclear and missile capabilities).

However, Beijing has already resigned itself, albeit grudgingly, to dilution of its once total domination of Myanmar/Burma, and, as tussles within the editorial suites of the official Chinese media reveal, is obviously debating the possibility that distancing itself from North Korea might be acceptable and even a good thing for China.

The flip side to Chinese equivocation over North Korea is the PRC’s determination to ingratiate itself with the Park administration, and wean the ROK (whose economic importance to China vastly outweighs that of the DPRK) away from the US/Japan security axis into a closer diplomatic and economic relationship with China.  It would be logical, therefore, to expect that the PRC will cautiously partner with the ROK—and through it, the US– on its North Korean initiatives, if only to smooth the PRC-ROK relationship.

So the stars may be aligning for something sensible to happen on North Korea.


Peter Lee edits China Matters. His ground-breaking story on North Korea’s nuclear program, Big Bang Theory in North Korea, appears in the March issue of CounterPunch magazine. He can be reached at: chinamatters (at) prlee. org.

Peter Lee edits China Matters and writes about Asia for CounterPunch.  

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