Why Kerry’s Wrong on Korea

Heritage Fellow Peter Brookes explains “Why Kerry’s Wrong on Korea” in a NY Post op-ed today.

In the early 1990s, North Korea was on verge of becoming a nuclear-weapons state. After intense negotiations led by former President Jimmy Carter, the United States and North Korea signed the 1994 Geneva Agreed Framework to end Pyongyang’s nuclear program. In exchange, America, Japan and South Korea poured billions of dollars of food and energy aid into North Korea. (Neither Tokyo nor Seoul signed the accord, but became obligated to provide aid under it.) The nuclear program seemed frozen — until 2002, when America discovered that the North had been cheating for at least four years.

The reason? The United States — by itself — was unable to muster enough diplomatic pressure to ensure North Korea was complying with the agreement. It was clear that a multilateral approach, incorporating the influence of other key regional players, was needed.

To remedy the shortcomings of the 1994 agreement, the Bush administration established the Six-Party Talks. The idea is to use multilateral pressure from America, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea to rein in Pyongyang’s nuclear-weapons program. Of particular note, the administration realized that the country with the most influence on Pyongyang is China, its largest aid donor and most powerful neighbor. Beijing was needed to put the squeeze on a reluctant North Korea to bring it to the negotiating table as well as ensure Pyongyang’s future compliance with any new agreement. It’s also clear that failure to include China and other regional powers as stakeholders with a voice in the outcome of the talks would mean almost-certain failure for any agreement — and continued Korean nuclear brinkmanship and blackmail. It’s become evident that the only effective way to end the North Korean nuclear game — completely, verifiably and irreversibly — is to meet it head-on with a united, multilateral diplomatic offensive.

Unilateralism and multilateralism, including coalitions of the willing, have their place in international affairs. It depends on the circumstances. But in the case of North Korea, the Clinton administration’s unilateral approach, although well-intended, failed. And, unfortunately, Kerry’s head-to-head approach won’t fare any better.

This strikes me as reasonable. Kerry and Bush seem to agree that a multilateral approach is preferred when faced with foreign policy crises. They differ, though, on the uses of unilateralism and, for that matter, its definition. When Bush acts in concert with the UK and a couple dozen other countries to mount military action in Iraq, he’s criticized for being “unilateral;” when he seeks to involve key regional players in a diplomatic proceeding on the Korean peninsula, he’s not unilateral enough.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.