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October 02, 2004

The Manchurian Candidate?

By Jim Dallas

Over in the dKos diaries, AlaraJRogers asks what a lot of us perhaps thought: Isn't Bush's reliance on multi-lateral talks with North Korea (in effect) giving Red China a veto over our nation's security policy?

Frankly, in watching the debate, I thought this would have been an obvious come-back for Kerry myself.

But here is the answer: No, Bush's multi-lateral talks doesn't give China a veto over our policy, because multi-lateral talks aren't really a policy at all.

The argument for bilateral talks is essentially that "bilateral talks" will not simply be bilateral, but will involve real negotiation and consideration. There will be actual give and take, like in haggling over a contract. That's what Kerry was hinting at. I think the technical diplomatic term for this is "constructive engagement."

For North Korea, getting nukes isn't simply about being a dangerous rogue state (although with Kim Jong-Il, movie fanatic and tyrant, that may be part of the deal). What North Korea wants is security guarantees, in addition to all kinds of economic assistance. Oh yeah, and all this has to come on the condition of the Kimists staying firmly in power.

Multi-lateral talks are not about haggling or barganing. They are simply about lining up as many countries as possible to "shame" North Korea, and to isolate them. You might as well call "multilateral" talks "unilateral" talks, because we're not listening, just talking.

True, there might be a deal cut, but when we're pulling in China "for leverage", the goal is to insure as complete and unconditional a diplomatic victory as possible. In contracts terms, if "bilateralism" is about bargaining, "multilateralism" is about duress.

This runs the risk, of course, of pretty complete failure if there's a miscalculation.

In theory, either approach could work, but consider the default, fall-back position we have in the event of failure is identical in both cases: we bomb North Korea.

With a bilateral agreement, it may be possible to avert this while at the same time put together a real solution to the "Korea problem," paving the way to a lasting peace on the peninsula.

With a multilateral agreement, we are simply trying to back the North Koreans into a corner, forcing their hand in this instance, but not at all structuring any kind of long-term, sustainable arrangement.

"Peace in Kora" is sort of like that of a critically-injured patient, the prognosis being pretty bad. Think blood and guts spirting out all over the table.

Bush is proposing sending in a whole trauma team of doctors... to apply a band-aid. Whereas Kerry is proposing to send in one doctor to do major emergency surgery.

That, in a nutshell, is the "difference of opinion" between Bush and Kerry over North Korea.

Both policies have their down-sides, but I think Kerry's is obviously more likely to work.

Posted by Jim Dallas at October 2, 2004 07:39 AM | TrackBack


North Korea is a very complicated situation and can be examined through a more cynical - black /white prism, or a more nuanced, realistic one.

The Cynical, Black & White (i.e. Bush) View:

North Korea is actually one sophisticated exortion racket. They want to be bribed with money to stop manufacturing and exporting weapons. The North Koreans want bilateral talks because the best way to extort the USA is through bilateral talks because it is easier to play an extortion racket one victim at a time. We should not give in and capitulate to rouge nations; we need to "get tough" with North Korea and allowing bilateral talks will not be a conducive forum for getting tough with North Korea.

The Nuanced / Realisitic (i.e. Kerry) View:

The more realistic view is that, for reasons of the past, the North Korean economy is completely undiversified and relies solely on one industry: weapons manufacturing. The economy is "stuck" in this position and it has no other means to diversify without assistance: both financial and "know how." North Korea is not out to harm the USA, but will do so to earn money it so desperately needs the only way it knows how. Without a mini-Marshall plan, North Korea will remain a problem. North Korea has an incentive not to admit this: it loses face as having a failed system. The USA has an incentive not to admit this: it runs the risk of being labled as an extortion victim and "mollycoddling" rouge nations. Bilateral talks allow two sides to negotiate without losing face for all the world to see.
One of the biggest foreign policy mistakes made at the very beginning of the Bush Adminsitratin was ceasing all bilateral discussions with North Korea. (The other was deprioritizing antiterrorism in favor of missle defense systems). It did not make big news at the time, but was a deliberate policy shift from Clinton-Gore. We are reaping the results of this decision vis-a-viz North Korea.. (9-11 already showed what deprioritizing antiterrorism in favor of missle defense systems can lead to).

Multi-lateral talks reallly are just an attempt to shame or bully North Korea into submission. Like it or not, we are not in a position to do so: they have too many troops and weapon systems within minutes of Seoul (not to mention any potential nuclear capabilities). We have to face up that we have to negotiate, and cannot just bulldoze them over. As a procedural vehicle, bilateral talks are the appropriate forum by which to negotiate (as opposed to dictate) terms of a solution.

Bush's cowboy mentality will likely lead to North Korea continuing a nuclear weapons program and exporting it to nations that truly want to do us harm. The result will be disastrous.

The Kerry reasoned approach will likely lead to a peace with North Korea or at least a a detente, and will make the world a safer place.

Posted by: WhoMe? at October 2, 2004 05:24 PM

WhoMe? wrote

One of the biggest foreign policy mistakes made at the very beginning of the Bush Adminsitratin [sic] was ceasing all bilateral discussions with North Korea.

Beldar has a good entry in his blog as to why this action was the best possible thing the US could have done.

Posted by: Jonathan Sadow at October 2, 2004 05:52 PM

Bilateral talks with North Korea may be between the US and North Korea but China's influence will be evident. China pulls Kim's strings. Whatever Kim does is done with China's approval. Whatever proliferation will occur will be with China's tacit approval. China simply wouldn't permit Kim to start anything if it didn't suit China's purposes and right now it doesn't suit China's purpose.

The real issue is not North Korea's proliferation. The real issue is China's plans to challenge the West in the future. Right now, it suits China to allow all the attention to be focused on North Korea so China allows Kim to posture and threaten all he likes.

Posted by: jlk at October 2, 2004 07:17 PM

Jonathon Sadow,

I read Beldar's link. After blowing his own horn (he is so brilliant - just ask him and he will tell you so), he mentions nothing specific about Korea or about bilateral negotiations, but instead just criticizes Kerry for his general negotiation skills by putting a spin on a particular portion of Kerry's speech. Nothing specific about Korea that I saw.

Posted by: WhoMe? at October 3, 2004 12:31 AM

I disagree that North Korea is a pawn of the Chinese. China certainly has an interest in making sure that the Korean penninsula is nuclear-free. Any nation with nuclear capability immediately becomes a military power in the region, and a nuclear North Korea threatens China's domination of the region. In addition, any arms race that could lead to war on the penninsula will be trouble for China as refugees would pour into China.

So, if China really were pulling Norh Korea's strings, then the latter would not have such an advanced weapons program. Conclusion: China is not pulling Norh Korea's strings. Q.E.D.

Posted by: WhoMe? at October 3, 2004 12:37 AM

WhoMe? (in re jlk)

I am also skeptical of the notion that North Korea is a Chinese pawn.

While I have grave doubts about China, it makes no sense to promote an outlaw regime in their own backyard. The potential for blowback is self-evident.

Moreover, any multi-lateral talks, if effective, will clearly have the effect of driving a wedge between China and North Korea, making North Korea even more unpredictable. Think of leverage as being a one-shot deal.

Posted by: Jim D at October 3, 2004 11:09 AM
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