Seeking options

I found this op-ed by Gregory Clark in last Thursday’s Japan Times fascinating. Clark suggests that North Korea may well be more open to an agreement with the US than commonly assumed, because Pyongyang is looking to expand its foreign policy options: “Even less is there any realization of an even more important factor possibly at work — namely, the strong hints now surfacing that Pyongyang is eager to embrace Washington as a way to distance itself from Beijing and possibly even from Seoul.”

I think Clark gets to an important idea in the foreign policy making of any country. Success in foreign policy is often means a state’s expanding its options in a given situation, because, essentially, the more options, the more power. Of course, the number of options a state has at any given moment is finite, limited by norms and values, domestic institutions, material capabilities, the international environment, and so on. But for a state like the DPRK, whose very existence hangs in the balance, having the option of looking to another great power — slightly more distant than Beijing or Seoul — for reassurance and aid is a major diplomatic coup, and could well be worth the cost (i.e., giving up nuclear weapons).

And yet as Pyongyang and Washington look to expand their options in Northeast Asia, Japan is going the other direction: drastically limiting its options by staking its Korean diplomacy on the resolution of the abductions issue. As Clark wrote:

That Japan still seems unable or unwilling to grasp these possibilities is a measure of many things. One is its chronic weakness in diplomatic strategy and tactics. Another is the anti-North Korea emotion whipped up here over the abductee issue. Even Pyongyang’s insistence that at least one of the claimed 12 abductees — Megumi Yokota — is dead, and that this can be easily proved if Tokyo cooperates, is being ignored.

I think Clark nails the point. As I’ve said before, conditions are such that there is real potential for both a major about-face by Pyongyang that results in its embracing Washington, and for Tokyo’s being isolated in the region through its inflexible North Korea policy (even if it gains from a denuclearized Korean Peninsula).

With the signs coming out of the recent working group discussions on security in Northeast Asia and denuclearization showing the US willing to work towards an agreement — reportedly agreeing to release frozen DPRK funds in Macau — and North Korea apparently moving toward satisfying requirements to freeze its nuclear activities, alarms should be going off in Kasumigaseki that Japan needs to change course.

Is anyone there paying attention?

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