North Korea has the Bush administration bending over backward to assuage North Korea and keep negotiations on track, and — with an assist from the US Congress — has Japan isolated and weak. (To see how the US Congress’s ill-timed comfort women resolution has played into North Korea’s hands, South Korea’s foreign minister today, in comments about the six-party talks, criticized Prime Minister Abe’s comments on the comfort women issue.) It has forced the US to over-commit quickly, meaning that Pyongyang will have an easier time holding out for a better deal without having to worry that the US will abandon negotiations altogether.
Having already developed and tested nuclear weapons, North Korea is on control of the pace of negotiations — and, of course, can very easily undermine a final agreement by dragging its feet on implementation.
All of which goes to show that while last month’s breakthrough in the six-party talks was a promising sign, Northeast Asia remains fraught with tensions that run deeper than the issues currently under discussion. The East Asian balance of power is in a state of constant flux. Each state is particularly sensitive to changes in the relative distribution of power. So yes, it’s important to denuclearize the Korean peninsula, but the process of reaching that goal will do much to shape the distribution of power — and, more importantly, perceptions of the distribution of power — in the region. The future of Asia may well hang in the balance.