Monday, July 06, 2009

N. Korea: A Question of Sovereignty?

After what has been touted as a highly successful meeting between the world’s two superpowers on Monday, in Russia, both U.S. President Barack Obama and Russia’s Dmitry Medvedev have drafted an agreement that would reduce their combined nuclear arsenal by as much as one third. President Obama said: “We must lead by example,” and this is clearly an excellent start.

But, given North Korea’s launch of seven missiles to commemorate America’s Independence Day, the symbolism is inescapable that, despite what we, in the west, prefer to see as his mad antics, Kim Jong-Il’s concerns may have something to do with his nation’s independence from foreign manipulation. And, given his own failing health, Kim Jong-Il may be justified in stopping what he may see as the inevitable absorption of N. Korea by its neighbor to the south upon his death. The several nuclear tests we’ve witnessed over the past two months might someday be regarded as Kim Jong-Il’s swan song, or last efforts to stop the annexation of Pyongyang by Seoul.

Clearly, nothing the White House is doing is putting North Korea’s mind at rest. In a meeting with South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak, mid-June, President Obama reportedly gifted South Korea with continued, public assurances that the so-called “nuclear umbrella” over Seoul would prevail. But, the real question is what assurances were delivered behind closed doors, and whether or not Myung-Bak came away with a first-of-its-kind written guarantee that the U.S. will put their money where their mouth is where backing S. Korea with nuclear weapons is concerned.

So, on the one hand, we have a president, in his infancy, trying to forge new, and improved, relations with his Russian counterpart, as well as impress the world with the prospect that the two greatest proliferators of nuclear energy are now ready to pursue substantial downsizing. Yet, on the other hand, the president promises to provide nuclear weapons to S. Korea to protect that country from the sabre rattling in Pyongyang. Doublespeak? Yes, but clearly not precedent-setting.

For example, while the White House expresses alarm about Iran, where is the public outrage over Israel’s nuclear warheads, and long range missiles? Similarly, whenever the subject of social unrest in Pakistan comes up, the first thing one hears about is their nuclear arsenal while, at the same time, a former president, George W. Bush, was content to bend the rules a bit when it came to India’s efforts at uranium enrichment. Also, what does it tell the world about our genuine attempts at diarmament given that the U.S. is still not willing to sign a treaty banning the manufacture of cluster bombs when 90 other countries have already done so?

Still, the larger question is–how can we continue to offer a nuclear shield for Seoul and, simultaneously, expect the international community to commit to arresting the nuclear development of Pyongyang? . Is nuclear proliferation by some countries acceptable, but not by others, and what happens when the leader of a country, like North Korea, asserts that their build-up is in self-defense, and to protect their territorial autonomy? Surely, all countries must honor U.N. Security Council resolutions just as no country deserves an exemption from Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaties–in theory, that is, but in practice we see those treaties broken all the time, and with impunity.

The magnitude of Monday’s announced rollback in the expansion of nuclear warfare is a positive, and dramatic break from the star wars defense programs of the Reagan years, but any substantive change in foreign policy will involve approaching the heads of foreign states with respect, and acknowledging them as partners. President Obama has taken a first step in that direction when he announced that there is a “path to peace” available to North Korea, and without question the development of a nuclear arsenal in that country poses a threat to the entire world. But, by what kind of inverse logic can we consider providing nuclear coverage to the south a way to avoid nuclear proliferation in the north?

Moreover, who knows what would happen if, as a change of pace, the president were to reassure Kim Jong-Il that no one wants to threaten North Korea’s right to exist? Maybe that’s what was behind all his nuclear launches–a promise of nonintervention by the U.S. and South Korea upon his demise.

If, in fact, as Obama suggests “we must lead by example,” then we can begin by respecting the sovereignty of other countries, even those with which we disagree.