The Baghdad Effect

Why North Korea may rethink brinkmanship

Hard-nosed U.S. diplomacy in North Asia seemed doomed. North Korea had restarted its nuclear program. A new government in Seoul was openly hostile to U.S. policy, and anti-American protests were roiling the South Korean capital. China, perhaps the one nation with pull in Pyongyang, insisted the crisis was a matter for the U.S. and North Korea to resolve. And Japan was becoming increasingly assertive militarily. The volatile region seemed headed for a day of reckoning.

But while much of the world's attention focused on Iraq, the outlook quietly improved on the Korean Peninsula. With the U.S.-led war nearing an end, Washington's foreign-policy makers are likely to turn their attention back to Korea -- and chances now appear better that the crisis will be resolved peacefully.

In part, that's because the successful invasion of Iraq has pushed the region's players to recalibrate their positions. China is taking a harder line with North Korea. And most experts believe North Korea's Kim Jong Il may now forgo brinksmanship for pragmatism. "They don't want to make the same mistake as Saddam Hussein," says Masashi Nishihara, professor of international relations at Japan's National Defense Academy.

Just as important, tensions between Seoul and Washington are ebbing. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's suggestion last month that the U.S. might pull some troops from the demilitarized zone reminded the South Korean government of President Roh Moo Hyun that the U.S. effectively underwrites Seoul's security. That's prompted it to tone down the anti-U.S. rhetoric.

At the same time, Washington and Seoul have finally agreed on a North Korea strategy. Seoul had wanted the U.S. to hold talks directly with Pyongyang but now supports multilateral talks proposed by the U.S. that would include Japan, China, and Russia. In return, Washington has assured Seoul that the U.S. won't rush into any military face-off with North Korea. Also, the Bush Administration no longer demands Pyongyang come clean on its nuclear program before talks begin. The message to Kim: Give up the nukes in exchange for aid, and you can stay in power.

If this strategy fails? Military action is unlikely because it would be potentially ugly and could spill into South Korea and Japan. "The chance of war on the Korean peninsula as a means of resolving the nuclear issue is almost zero," says Roh's foreign policy adviser, Ban Ki Moon. U.S. air strikes on North Korean nuclear facilities are probably a nonstarter because the Pentagon doesn't know all the locations where North Korea has its bomb-making materials. More likely are economic sanctions and a naval blockade to prevent exports of missile technology and nuclear materials.

For the strategy to work, China's involvement is crucial. According to Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at People's University in Beijing, the Chinese foreign ministry is for the first time considering economic sanctions against North Korea. Press reports said that China last month temporarily shut off an oil pipeline to the North -- a possible warning to its ally.

Why the change of heart in Beijing? Partly because China fears the presence of nukes in North Korea might trigger a U.S. strike. Japan's newfound aggressiveness is also part of the equation. Citing the threat of a North Korean missile attack, Tokyo aims to equip its destroyers with Patriot antimissile rockets, is weighing the purchase of long-range offensive missiles, and has launched two spy satellites. China fears such technology could be used against it in the event of a war over Taiwan.

Diplomacy in this part of the world is never simple. But it does appear that the region's players are increasingly willing to sit down together to find a solution to the North Korean problem -- and are prepared to twist arms to get there. And while Washington's big-stick approach may have paid dividends, the Bush Administration has made concessions, too. No one wants another war on the Korean peninsula.

By Brian Bremner in Tokyo, with Moon Ihlwan in Seoul and Dexter Roberts in Beijing

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