Recommended Book: The Peninsula Question, Yoichi Funabashi

In the year since Funabashi Yoichi, editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun, finished The Peninsula Question, the US and North Korea made an agreement that restarted the Six-Party talks, overcame the Banco Delta Asia obstacle, and issued a joint statement with the other parties that included a promise by North Korea to account for its nuclear program and disable related facilities, before progress stalled at New Year’s. In the process, the Abe government ensured that Japan would not play a constructive role in the talks.

Dr. Funabashi’s book does not suffer from leaving off at North Korea’s nuclear test in October 2006. Indeed, The Peninsula Question anticipates much of what’s happened over the past year.

The Peninsula Question is, according to its subtitle, “a chronicle of the second Korean nuclear crisis.” This is not a polemic — Dr. Funabashi does not deviate from his measured tone except in a few spots in which he criticizes US hawks — and he provides few answers to the titular question. But as a chronicle of the Northeast Asian crisis since 2002, it is nonpareil. Dr. Funabashi interviewed dozens of policymakers in the governments of five of the six parties, providing an intimate look at how the US, Japan, China, South Korea, and Russia approached North Korea in the Six-Party talks.

The result is of interest to both general readers and international relations specialists, as Dr. Funabashi shows the constraints that impact foreign policy decision makers. Dr. Funabashi shows that neither international politics nor domestic politics is the primary constraint on policy makers: both are important, with some variance from country to country. Policy makers are also constrained by history, ideology, and geography. This is not to deny the role of human agency in policy making, but it suggests that policy makers operate exercise their agency within a narrow band. The main protagonists of Dr. Funabashi’s book were further constrained because they were, for the most part, not heads of state and government. Perhaps the only figure willing and able to defy the constraints was former prime minister Koizumi Junichiro, who traveled twice to Pyongyang in pursuit of the normalization of diplomatic ties with North Korea.

As a result of his interviews, Dr. Funabashi draws special attention to the domestic constraints on each country’s North Korea policy. While Washington and Tokyo were perhaps the most divided of the six parties, each government — North Korea included — had divisions that undermined the pursuit of an agreement. These domestic divisions resulted in first the rift between South Korea, and the US and Japan, and then in the rift between the US and Japan in 2007 as the Abe government took a firmer line on North Korea at the moment that the US approach softened.

Ultimately, though, it may be the international constraints that will undermine any agreement. North Korea, perhaps for good reason, believes that a nuclear weapon is the key to its security. Neither the US nor Japan is willing to live with a North Korean nuke; neither government, however, is in a position to take decisive action to end the North Korean nuclear program. China is clearly annoyed by North Korea, but appears willing to act only so far as to prevent a war on the Korean peninsula. Russia has little influence in Northeast Asia, as illustrated by Dr. Funabashi’s chapter showing the failure of Russia’s attempt to offer itself as an “honest broker” in the talks.

The result? North Korea will continue doing exactly what it’s been doing. In the meantime, the five parties should be strengthening cooperation in preparation for the collapse of the DPRK, because post-DPRK North Korea may be the source of more trouble in the region than the DPRK itself, albeit trouble of a different sort.

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