Policy Constraints in Korea

June 14, 1994

Americans are learning that they can't be more European than the Europeans, more African than the Africans, more Latin than the Latin Americans or more Asian than the Asians in dealing with conflicts in the post-Cold War world. It is a reality that has guided U.S. policy in Bosnia, Somalia and Haiti along cautious paths despite the humanitarian concerns present in all three countries. Korea, however, presents questions of a different magnitude. It not only tugs at the heartstrings but deeply affects U.S. security interests and this nation's role as the only superpower around.

Day by day the crisis caused by North Korea's nuclear weapons program puts the U.S. in a tighter bind. For half a century, Washington has led the international effort to prevent the spread of atomic arms. It had to acquiesce when the former Soviet Union and China were not to be denied and looked the other way when Israel, India and Pakistan, among others, pursued unacknowledged nuclear goals. But when North Korea signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and then rejected its rules, this was an affront to international order that the only remaining superpower could not ignore. Hence, the U.S. drive for United Nations economic sanctions against the Pyongyang regime as well as veiled hints of military action if necessary.

French resistance to U.S. air strikes in Bosnia and Latin America's historic dislike of Yanqui intervention in the hemisphere (even in Haiti) have had the happy result of restraining U.S. belligerency in situations where vital American interests were not at risk. But what about Korea, where 33,651 American soldiers died resisting Communist aggression in the early Fifties? The nuclear threat is clearly cause for tough measures to prevent a precedent that could encourage other rogue regimes to pursue weapons of mass destruction. But despite these huge stakes, the U.S. finds itself inhibited by the fears and concerns of North Korea's immediate neighbors: China, Japan and South Korea. Their worries about a nuclear North Korea are real enough, but their dread of a war that could bring regional destruction is even greater.

As a result, the U.S. is pursuing only minimalist sanctions against Pyongyang and finding even these repugnant to its immediate neighbors. This country cannot walk away from the crisis. The situation demands international punishment if North Korea remains recalcitrant. But as Asian nations apply their growing leverage, Washington should also prepare for further negotiations with Pyongyang, perhaps at the kind of regional conference suggested by Russia.

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