The top diplomats of the United States, South Korea, and Japan will meet today in Washington to discuss North Korea. Tension on the Korean peninsula has escalated considerably over the past several weeks following Pyongyang’s disclosure of an indigenous uranium-enrichment facility and its subsequent artillery strikes on South Korea’s Yeonpyeong island, which killed two South Korean troops and two civilians.
But the public should not expect an innovative policy breakthrough to emerge from this trilateral confab. Because as numerous North Korea watchers have opined over the past few weeks, there is no foolproof solution for confronting Pyongyang’s continued intransigence. The Six-Party Talks aimed at bribing North Korea to denuclearize have been an abject failure, again and again. And according to a recent United Nations report, the international community continues to neglect its responsibility to implement and enforce sanctions against Kim Jong Il and his regime.
Furthermore, Pyongyang’s primary diplomatic and economic patron — China — will be notably absent from the Washington meeting. Beijing refuses to condemn North Korea’s latest provocations and even had the temerity to criticize recent U.S.-South Korea and U.S.-Japan naval exercises in the wake of the Yeonpyeong attack. Beijing’s default position for resolving the situation on the Korean Peninsula remains the nonsensical Six-Party Talks.
The trilateral meeting will not yield a quick fix for toppling the Kim regime. But the symbolism of the United States, South Korea, and Japan standing shoulder-to-shoulder will certainly not be lost on either Pyongyang or Beijing. After all, the combined political and military alliances of Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo serve as the bedrock of regional security and stability in the Asia-Pacific region. And governments in Australia, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Singapore, among others, count on these alliances remaining robust long after the reunification of the Korean peninsula.
But expressions of solidarity and resolve against the Pyongyang regime will have only a limited impact absent accompanying measures on the part of Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo to demonstrate real willingness to deter future North Korean provocations and challenge continued Chinese indifference to Pyongyang’s antics.
For starters, Washington must commit to lead rather than cede international responsibility for dealing with North Korea to China. And by hosting the trilateral meeting today, the Obama administration has taken a good first step in this direction. But Washington can and must do more to demonstrate American steadfastness. U.S. intelligence remains incomplete regarding North Korea’s continued weapons proliferation and other illicit activities. But rather than pocket what is known for a rainy day under the guise of protecting sources and methods, the United States should step up measures to stymie Pyongyang’s activities and act decisively in cooperation with other states to seize Kim’s personal financial assets. Moreover, the Obama administration should underscore that states complicit in or uncooperative with efforts to disrupt North Korea’s transgressions will be held accountable. Such a statement should serve to put China on notice that there will be consequences for Beijing’s continued indulgence.
Seoul must finally put its money where its mouth is when it comes to Pyongyang. This necessitates that Seoul end financial support for and move expeditiously to shut down the Kaesong Industrial Complex — a sprawling complex of manufacturing facilities operated by South Korean companies six miles north of the DMZ. Kaesong was intended to foster inter-Korean economic relations and ease tension on the peninsula. The complex employs nearly 40,000 North Korean workers. But Pyongyang pockets most of the salaries paid to the workers, and the revenue provides the Kim regime with yet another economic lifeline for its continued survival. South Korean president Lee Myung Bak has already brought a much-needed dose of pragmatism to Seoul’s approach to Pyongyang, having rejected the “Sunshine” policy of engagement pursued by his two predecessors. But President Lee must continue to demonstrate South Korean resolve by ending Seoul’s support for Kaesong and denying the Kim regime the $30 million a year in revenue it produces.
And Tokyo must get serious about Japanese national-security policy. The U.S.-Japan alliance is considered by many experts to be the cornerstone of stability in East Asia. But Tokyo’s oftentimes cavalier attitude and reluctance to undertake greater responsibility for the continued maintenance of the U.S.-Japan alliance threatens to undermine this bulwark of security in the region. Thus Tokyo should promptly resolve once and for all the lingering dispute over the relocation of U.S. forces from the Futenma airbase that has been a major irritant in the U.S.-Japan alliance over the past year. North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic-missile capabilities pose a genuine threat to the Asia-Pacific region. Resolving Futenma is one of several steps Tokyo can undertake to strengthen deterrence in East Asia and demonstrate the capacity for genuine leadership in the region.
Monday’s trilateral meeting is an initial step toward reconstituting an international “coalition of the willing” to confront North Korean belligerence. But Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo must follow up with concrete actions so today’s meeting is not just another diplomatic photo op.
— Carolyn Leddy served at the State Department and on the National Security Council staff during the Bush administration, from 2003 to 2007.