Sunday 22 Jul 2018 | 07:05 | SYDNEY
Sunday 22 Jul 2018 | 07:05 | SYDNEY

US alienating friends over North Korea


Malcolm Cook

14 October 2008 15:42

Times are bad for East Asian security when Christopher Hill, the US envoy to the Six-Party Talks, is more welcome in Pyongyang – the outpost of tyranny and source of nuclear proliferation — than he is in Tokyo, the most important US ally in the region, a country that has the best record in nuclear constraint, and an alliance partner that has contributed to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Times are worse when the American envoy carries out bilateral negotiations with the North Koreans, strikes a deal and then goes to Seoul and Tokyo (US allies both with weak, pro-US governments) and tells them what the deal is. Unlike the US, both Japan and South Korea face an imminent threat from North Korea and both governments are much less sanguine about this deal. Reportedly, departing Secretary of State Rice had a long and angry phone call with Japan’s new foreign minister. Not a good way to start relations. Even candidates Obama and McCain thought allies should have been treated better.

The latest bilateral deal, struck by Hill after negotiations in Pyongyang, seems to usurp the whole rationale for the Six-Party Talks process, while achieving very little in terms of getting Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons. The deal sees the US take North Korea off the state sponsors of terrorism list in return for North Korea promising to restart the dismantling of the aged Yongbyon nuclear reactor and agreeing to limited (not comprehensive) verification of declared nuclear sites 'upon mutual consent.' (Don’t hold your breath for Pyongyang to grant consent to anything beyond Yongbyon.)

The Six-Party Talks established by the Bush Administration were well placed to achieve five related goals, each of which have been either damaged or not advanced by this latest deal, which smacks of desperation for a foreign policy success before the end of the Bush era.

  1. Goal: Preclude bilateral talks with Pyongyang as demanded by Pyongyang. Result: We now have bilateral talks taking place in Pyongyang.
  2. Goal: Stronger US communication and coordination with other five parties, particularly Japan and South Korea. Result: A serious rift in US-Japan strategic relations, with South Korea quietly concerned that deals are being struck on their peninsula without their input.
  3. Goal: Concerted pressure on Pyongyang from the US and other negotiating parties. Result: Growing divisions between the US and its Northeast Asian allies.
  4. Goal: Reassert the US’s central, constructive security role in Northeast Asia. Result: Mounting questions about the costs/benefits of alliance relationships and fears about how the US may balance a potentially more assertive China in the future.
  5. Goal: Stop North Korea going nuclear. Result: North Korea has joined China as the only nuclear powers in Northeast Asia.