Asia Program

Can Bush Handle North Korea?

In this article which appeared in the March 6, 2003 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asia Program director Robert M. Hathaway examines President George W. Bush's North Korea policy and his East Asia policy over the last two years.

Mar 06, 2003

With the United States poised for war against Iraq, what are we to make of President George W. Bush's record in Asia? Given the mounting crisis over North Korea, this is no academic question. Indeed, sifting through Bush's first two years may give hints of how he will handle Pyongyang after Iraq, as well as myriad other issues that bedevil the region. For though the administration's Asia policy is still very much a work in progress, we can begin to identify themes that tie together its policies for the region as Bush enters the second half of his first term.

The administration's brightest spot is its rather adroit handling of the difficult Sino-American relationship. Perhaps surprisingly, the stark neo-realist, power-oriented analysis that characterized Bush's early months in office has, in the post-September 11 era, given way to an emphasis on common values drawing the major powers of Asia together. The paradigm of China as "strategic competitor" is nowhere to be seen these days. Nonetheless, fundamental differences between Washington and Beijing remain, and it will probably not require much provocation to reactivate a resurgence of the "China as potential threat" viewpoint formerly pushed by many senior officials.

On balance, the administration has also done a good job in persuading Asian governments to enlist in the war against terrorism--though when hostilities against Iraq begin, unfavourable reaction in the region may compel a reassessment of this judgment. Counter-terrorism has provided the organizing concept guiding much of the administration's policy towards Asia since the September 11 attacks. The trouble is, this preoccupation with terrorism has led to the downplaying of other important agenda items--development and human rights, to name two--which ultimately may make the achievement of even U.S. counter-terrorism objectives more difficult. Certainly, security issues have crowded out economic ones.

Less successful has been the administration's stated intention to strengthen its major Asian alliances. This is a matter of some urgency with respect to the highly troubled relationship with South Korea.

One of the key items on the Bush agenda for the early months of this year is to begin repairing the breach in ties with Seoul and to fashion a relationship of trust with new South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun, who in the recent past has boasted of his suspicions of the U.S.

Across the Demilitarized Zone, North Korea stands as the administration's most glaring failure in Asia, its most pressing concern in the months ahead and the reason for continuing doubt whether Bush can hack it in the region. Until last autumn, the administration's handling of North Korea--for all the rhetorical differences captured in the "axis of evil" phrase--retained many of the underpinnings of Bill Clinton's policy, though the White House sought to obscure this fact. Diplomacy, negotiations and engagement with the North--rather than containment, isolation or a military solution--were the preferred means of dealing with Pyongyang. Food aid continued. Even the Agreed Framework, so roundly condemned by Bush's Republican Party during the Clinton years, was maintained.

But of course, the discovery of Pyongyang's enriched-uranium programme has drastically changed the equation. Unfortunately, the administration's approach to the North Korea problem over the past two years has been marked by confusion, mixed messages and an absence of strategic thinking, a failure that has left it ill-prepared to deal with the present crisis--which, administration claims to the contrary, is a crisis.

Deep divisions within the administration have hampered the formulation and implementation of a coherent long-term strategic approach to Asia, Korea being the most prominent example. Taken as a whole, Bush's record in Asia is not bad, particularly in the light of the distracting influence of the global war on terrorism. But North Korea requires us to think more specifically, and in this case the picture is discouraging.

In Bush's policies an important ingredient is lacking. After two years in office, the administration has not yet articulated a vision of American interests in Asia. And without an overall strategic framework, U.S. policy in the region is likely to remain ad hoc and reactive. And that is no way, unfortunately, to defuse the dangers that arise from a regime like North Korea. The verdict? Bush's Asia policies receive a passing grade, maybe even better--except for North Korea. Yet ironically it is North Korea and Kim Jong Il that drive most of the region's insecurities.

Reprinted by permission of Far Eastern Economic Review, Copyright 2003 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.

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