In fact, the most disturbing development on the North Korean problem since 2008 is the growing possibility that North Korea may never give up its nuclear program, no matter how long diplomatic efforts go on. This presents a serious problem for the United States. On the one hand, upcoming presidential elections in Washington and Seoul, an anticipated leadership transition in China, and continuing political uncertainty in Japan all suggest that the next six to twelve months will not be the best time for diplomacy. In this sense, “strategic patience”-maintaining pressure on the North by enforcing existing economic sanctions, sending a clear signal that any provocative behavior would be promptly met by decisive action, and keeping channels of communication open while not rushing to enter into negotiations prematurely-may be the best course of action in the short term. On the other hand, “strategic patience” should not mean continuing the status quo forever. If North Korea consistently refuses to return to negotiations (Six Party Talks or otherwise) as it continues to make progress on its nuclear program, Washington may be forced to change its declared policy goal vis-à-vis North Korea’s nuclear program from “dismantlement” to “containment,” acquiescing to Pyongyang’s status as a de facto nuclear weapons state as long as it does not proliferate. The probability of such a policy shift by the US will only grow as the current diplomatic impasse persists.
Should the US make such a shift, it would have a devastating impact on the international community’s effort to curb the proliferation of nuclear weapons. What is potentially more serious for US security interests in Northeast Asia, however, is its possible impact on alliance relations with Japan and South Korea.
Over the years, the security threats posed by North Korea-both nuclear and conventional-have served as a primary driver to facilitate relations between the US, Japan, and South Korea. In particular, these three countries have long shared the goal of an eventual complete dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear program. Should this overarching goal disappear due to a change in American policy, the divergence in threat perceptions vis-à-vis North Korea-which has existed among the three partners but has not been explicitly demonstrated in the face of this overarching goal of a nuclear-free North Korea-will likely resurface, only to cause a strain on trilateral security relations.
As I stated before, I tend to take a structural approach to trilateral relations – Cha’s quasi-alliance argument – instead of Tatsumi’s political analysis or a human rights slant. What Tatsumi is identifying is related to Cha’s realist argument, that America’s two separate alliances with Japan and South Korea discourages Japan and South Korea from cooperating with each other, particularly North Korea.
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