OPINION> Commentary
Diplomacy the path to peaceful peninsula
By Walter L. Hixson (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-04-07 07:48

Despite inept diplomacy on many fronts, it appears the World may survive the latest crisis emanating from the Korean peninsula, at least for now. At some point, however, unless determined diplomacy replaces militarism and posturing, the result could be horribly different.

While the immediate focus shifts to the UN Security Council, the longer-term issue is whether the United States and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) will choose diplomacy over militarism. Kim Jong-Il and the DPRK are not solely responsible for this crisis; the Bush administration butchered Korean diplomacy for eight years. Moreover, militarized US foreign policy remains an impediment to a general settlement on the Korean Peninsula.

The essential problem in the West is the inability to look beyond the problem of Kim's government.

The demonization of Kim and the DPRK fuel a discourse that absolves all others of any responsibility for the perpetual Korean crisis. But there is plenty of blame to go around.

The point is that the DPRK exists and "government change" does not appear to be on the horizon.

Moreover, the DPRK, quite understandably, feels surrounded by hostile forces led by the dominant military power in the world, the United States, and joined by the Republic of Korea (ROK) and Japan.

While condemning Pyongyang for the "provocative act" of the satellite launch, the United States ignores its own provocations, notably the recent massive 20-day "war game" exercises with the ROK in which the Pentagon dispatched an aircraft carrier to the region as well as destroyers.

Within the frames of US militarist discourse, these acts are not provocations but rather prudent exercises in pursuit of the national interest.

But if history tells us anything about Kim and his government, it is that it tilts toward extremism in response to provocations but at the same time is capable of responding positively to diplomacy.

For example, Bush undermined the groundwork for a settlement by including the DPRK in the "axis of evil", but near the end of his presidency when he took Kim's government off the list of terrorist states, Kim responded by destroying the cooling tower at the Yongbyon nuclear facility.

Fortunately the Obama administration favors diplomacy and engagement over bellicose rhetoric and confrontation. The administration is committed to denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula as well as a general settlement of the political dispute dating back to World War II and the Korean War.

Obama and his special envoy Stephen Bosworth will have to work hard to get the Six Party talks back on track. ROK President Lee Myung-bak joined Bush in adopting a confrontational approach while Japanese Prime Minister Aso has tried to resurrect his record-low political standing with a get-tough approach to the crisis.

The Six Party talks should get back on track at some point and have a reasonable chance of success once tensions abate.

If the Obama administration can rein in its own military, as well as its dependent allies in Seoul and Tokyo, and pursue the avowed aim of a world free of nuclear weapons, DPRK might play along.

"Pyongyang's basic stance is that as long as Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul remain adversaries, it feels threatened and will acquire nuclear missiles to counter that threat," writes Leon Sigal, an expert on the Korean crisis, in the January 2009 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. However, "if Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul move toward reconciliation it will get rid of these weapons. Whether the DPRK means what it says isn't certain, but the only way to test it is to try to build mutual trust over time by faithfully carrying out a series of reciprocal steps."

Short of fuel and unable adequately to feed its own people, the DPRK badly needs international economic assistance. The other five parties should strive for an immediate quid pro quo involving massive but graduated assistance to the DPRK in return for denuclearization. Such a result would not only pave the way for a settlement on the Korean Peninsula but could also enhance the prospects of containing Korean nuclear technology from being exported to other states.

The DPRK launch represents a step back in the region, but there is a way forward. The Six Party talks must resume and come to acceptable terms. In the 21st century, choosing militarism over diplomacy invites disaster.

The author, a professor of history from the United States, is currently teaching at the China Foreign Affairs Institute in Beijing.

(China Daily 04/07/2009 page9)