The US finally goes through with delisting North Korea

The thinkable is finally the actual.

After more than a year since it became plausible for the US to remove North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism as a reward for cooperation in negotiations over the North Korean nuclear program, the US State Department has announced that it will remove North Korea from the list. With the global financial system melting down, this move appears to have been timed in the hope that it would receive less scrutiny than it would otherwise. The US move may also been in response to signs that North Korea may be preparing another nuclear test.

Whatever the Bush administration’s reasoning, the usual suspects in Japan once again reacted with shock at the US decision. Finance Minister Nakagawa Shoichi, in Washington for talks related to the financial crisis, reverted to his role as conservative hatchet man to criticize the US government for failing to consult with Japan, for abandoning the abductees, and for being played for a fool by North Korea. The media is reporting this as a demonstration of Japan’s being “left out,” observing that Prime Minister Aso received notice from Washington a mere half hour before it announced its decision. (Asahi described this as “a nightmare for the Japanese government.”) Mainichi suggested that the decision illustrates the need for a rethink by the Japanese government. The abductee families characterized the decision as “an act of betrayal.”

My sentiments are little different than they were in June 2008, when the Bush administration indicated that it was prepared to move forward with the delisting (before North Korea failed to follow through). Whatever the wisdom of the decision — there appear to be considerable holes regarding verification in the agreement, among other problems, as outlined by Victor Cha, former director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council — the rift between the US and Japan is the product of fundamental misunderstandings going back several years that have gone unaddressed by successive Japanese prime ministers and the Bush administration.

First, the Japanese government has mistakenly placed too much emphasis on the abductees and too little emphasis on the nuclear question. In emphasizing the abductee problem, Japan also came to really excessively on US pressure on North Korea. The alarm expressed above is symptomatic of this dependence: without US pressure, Tokyo has little hope of using sticks to force North Korea to be more cooperation on the abductions issue. Japan can keep extending its sanctions, but absent simultaneous US sanctions, they have little chance of working (not that joint US-Japan sanctions have had much effect).

Second, in connection to Japan’s emphasis on the abductions issue, the Japanese government has also placed far too much emphasis on the US state sponsors of terrorism list, a designation which Secretary Rice called “a formality,” thus making this step “completely meaningless” in practical terms. The Japanese government attached great importance to the designation because it took it literally. North Korea is a state sponsor of terrorism thanks to its abductions of foreign nationals. Until it makes amends for the abductions, it is still a state sponsor of terrorism and therefore still belongs on the list. For the US, the designation was just another bargaining chip in the pursuit of a denuclearized North Korea. It appears that the US did little to disabuse Japan of its impression.

Discussion of the strengths and weaknesses (mostly the weaknesses) of the agreement will undoubtedly rage in the coming days. But the significance of this agreement is simple: the Bush administration has made it resolutely clear that US North Korea policy is not “action for action” as suggested by President Bush in June. Rather, the US has decided that it will buy North Korea’s participation in the six-party talks and non-escalation of its nuclear activities through gradual concessions. Bowing to the reality of the situation in which the US has few alternatives to committing to negotiations, bilateral and multilateral, the Bush administration has made clear that bribery is now the essence of US North Korea policy. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Given that North Korea’s price isn’t particularly onerous and given that the alternatives (a war on the Korean Peninsula, unchecked nuclear proliferation, collapse of the DPRK before the US and North Korea’s neighbors are prepared to respond) are all worse than bribery, this may be the best possible approach.

Naturally Japan won’t see it that way. Instead there will be talk of betrayal, abandonment, and potentially the need for greater Japanese independence from the US (recall Mr. Aso’s role in the debate over a debate on nuclear weapons that raged in the early days of the Abe cabinet). But I don’t see how this turn of events helps Mr. Aso. Having been blindsided by the US decision, Mr. Aso looks little different from his predecessors, despite his foreign policy experience and his purported Washington connections. Despite his commitment to resolving the abductions issue, the US finally decided to proceed with delisting under his watch. I still maintain that foreign policy will have little impact on the next general election, but at the very least it’s possible that voters will wonder whether there is something to Ozawa Ichiro’s critique of the LDP’s foreign policy as subordinating Japan to the US without getting anything in return. The US has furnished Mr. Ozawa with a resonant example with which to make his case.

Meanwhile Japan has little reason to hope that the US will shift again on North Korea in the future. Should Barack Obama win the presidency next month, it is conceivable that he will embrace the “bribery” approach. Indeed, his approach — at least in the statement his campaign released in response to the delisting — is a succinct summary of the Bush administration’s approach: bilateral and multilateral diplomacy, a commitment to complete, verifiable denuclearization, and addressing the abductees issue at some point in the future. If John McCain wins, he will likely tack back to the Cheney line, reversing concessions to North Korea and restoring the US-Japan partnership on North Korea that prevailed 2002-2007. Senator McCain’s response emphasized the failure to consult with “our closest partners in Northeast Asia,” which presumably means Japan followed by South Korea. (The candidates’ statements can be found here.)

Little wonder that Japanese conservatives are cheering for Senator McCain. (And little wonder that Komori Yasuhisa is repeating Republican talking points verbatim on Senator Obama at his blog.) (For more on the likely differences between an Obama and a McCain administration on Asia, see my article in the current Japan Inc.)

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