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Containment or Engagement in 2011

In the 1940s George Kennan, U.S. diplomat and scholar, coined the phrase “containment” as an alternative to the more hawkish goal of “rolling back” communism. Soviet expansion should be countered and “contained” with pro-West political and economic alliances, he believed. Even long after Kennan felt it had come to be misinterpreted as a military doctrine and in spite of Nixon’s policy of détente beginning with China in the early 1970s the concept of containment continued to influence U.S. cold war policy. This is particularly true of U.S policy towards Korea, where the free-market and socialist worlds rub shoulders at the DMZ. Today, the term “reign-in,” however, is more commonly used to describe containment, in relation to North Korea.

In response to China’s rise as a world power, the Obama administration appears to be re-enacting the containment script in earnest strengthening alliances with countries neighboring China such as India, prodding South Korea and Japan to move towards a “defense” alliance, and by intensifying war exercises in the West Sea as a show of force to China as much as to North Korea. But while the containment doctrine may linger on in U.S. policy, it is already an anachronism on the ground in Asia. Indeed, South Korea, Japan and China have been pursuing serious discussions about a trade agreement of their own to serve as a buffer from the economic slow-downs in Europe and the United States. Globalization and new regional alignments are eroding cold war rivalry in the Northeast Asian marketplace, even as the Obama administration appears to be seeking to shore up cold war alliances in the region.

The Obama administration’s approach to North Korea has been premised on the belief that North Korea is in a state of internal disarray, and that with enough coercion from the U.S. and China, North Korea can be pressured to disarm or may even collapse. However the reality today is that North Korea, whatever its internal situation may be, is as defiant as ever of what it perceives as hostile policies towards it. Moreover the events of last year reveal that China does not see it in its interests to join efforts by the U.S. and South Korea to use pressure tactics to “reign-in” its neighbor, and that it is powerful and confident enough to say “no.”

China is out of the containment box. It has surpassed Japan to become the world’s second largest economy. It is a leading actor in free markets in every corner of the globe, a major creditor of U.S. debt, and is well on its way to challenging U.S. naval supremacy in the Pacific. For its part North Korea, which has endured untold economic hardships, has proven to be remarkably resilient. It proposed to South Korea and the U.S. this week to “let bygones be bygones,” and to engage in unconditional talks to resolve tensions on the peninsula.

In light of ongoing hostilities in the West Sea and China’s refusal to support U.S. policies in the region that might destabilize North Korea, the need for diplomacy is no longer possible to ignore. Policies in Seoul and Washington aimed at pressuring North Korea to denuclearize, relying almost exclusively on economic sanctions and military posturing, are shifting towards diplomatic engagement. After a meeting with his advisors last week President Lee Myung Bak told the press that South Korea has “no choice but to resolve the problem of dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program diplomatically through the six-party talks.” This week in Seoul Stephen Bosworth, U.S. Special Envoy to the six party-talks, declared “we believe that serious negotiation must be at the heart of any strategy for dealing with North Korea.”

China, North Korea and Russia, the U.S. South Korea and Japan, are in general agreement that a return to diplomacy means restarting the six-party talks. But getting back to the table will not be easy, much less reaching actionable agreements. To start with, China, North Korea and Russia have been calling for unconditional talks including discussion of issues beyond denuclearization, such as territorial disputes in the West Sea and the need for a peace process. The other parties have been arguing that North Korea must take steps to implement agreements it made during previous six party sessions as a precondition for returning to the talks, focusing mainly on the denuclearization issue.

Anger and frustration resulting from fighting in the West Sea has also been a barrier to diplomacy. South Korea is demanding that North Korea apologize for its shelling of Yeonpyeong Island last November, which resulted in the deaths of 4 South Koreans, and admit to torpedoing the Cheonan naval vessel last March, taking the lives of 46 sailors. However, North Korea denies any role in the Cheonan sinking and accuses South Korea of conducting provocative artillery drills within its territorial waters surrounding Yeonpyeong Island. Nevertheless, assuming that these disagreements and issues are overcome — perhaps with the help of a successful summit meeting between China and the U.S. on January 19th — the critical challenge will be for all the parties to actually follow through on the action items they agree upon.

In previous talks the parties agreed to achieve denuclearization across the entire Korean peninsula, not just in the north, in a “step by step,” “action for action,” “peaceful manner.” The parties also agreed to work towards the normalization of relations between the United States and North Korea, and between Japan and North Korea, and to implement a permanent “peace regime” on the Korean peninsula. Moreover, “the six parties committed to joint efforts to secure lasting peace and stability in Northeast Asia,” according to their joint statement of 2005. Unfortunately these action items require far more will and good faith to implement, than has existed among the participants.

The Achilles heel of the six-party talks is that the participants have failed to agree on the fundamental purpose of the talks, not the omission of any key issues. The U.S. and South Korea see the talks as a disarmament process incentivized by the promise of economic aid to North Korea and a yet to-be-decided peace accord. North Korea regards the talks as a process for achieving peace, recognition of its sovereignty, and of ending cold war rivalries on the Korean peninsula from which denuclearization will result. These conflicting views have plagued the talks from their very beginning in 2003. In any case what is now breathing life back into the six-party talks is a common desire to diffuse tensions on the Korean peninsula and avoid more deaths. This strongly suggests that going forward the parties should see their purpose as formulating a peace process. Such an understanding would enable the parties to take immediate steps to prevent further outbreaks of fighting, and to begin negotiating the terms of a peace accord, including steps towards denuclearization and methods of verification.

Last year the world was reminded that the Korean War is not over, and that peace is not at hand. It is too early to tell how the U.S. and its allies will evolve their policies and how successful diplomacy will be in 2011. The U.S. and South Korea are convinced that North Korea is not willing to give up its nuclear arms, particularly in light of recent revelations of the latter’s uranium enrichment program. North Korea is unconvinced that the U.S. and South Korea are willing to make peace with it, particularly in light of statements made by President Lee, and supported by President Obama, describing unification as a matter of South Korea absorbing North Korea. Clearly there is tremendous distrust to overcome.

Nevertheless, taking one step at a time, it is far better to start the New Year by trading harsh words across a table than by firing more artillery shells over the already bloodstained waters of the West Sea. It is far better to address the challenges of an emergent China by exchanging views and fostering mutual respect in a summit meeting than by engaging in polemics in the press. Progress beyond this point, however, will require flexibility by all parties to reformulate their policies and expectations as needed to foster peace and stability in the region in accordance with changing circumstances in Asia, and willingness to leave paradigms of the past behind.

*Paul Liem is Board Chairperson for the Korea Policy Institute


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