Connecting People & Ideas to Advance Mutual Interests in U.S.-Asia Relations
Author: L. Gordon Flake

In the weeks immediately following North Korea’s July 5 launching of multiple missiles, Japan and the United States closely collaborated at the United Nations and in the region to secure a meaningful UN Security Council Resolution (1695) that not only condemned the North Korea missile tests, but also called for sanctions in response. Although there now appears to be some movement on sanctions, some in Japan may have been disappointed by the Council’s failure to accept the full Japanese proposal including what are termed “Chapter 7 sanctions,” which would have held the potential of some form of enforcement mechanism. However, given the initial reticence by China and Russia, both with veto powers, the final wording of the resolution greatly exceeded most expectations.

In essence, despite weeks of diplomatic wrangling in New York, the Chinese negotiators were left to negotiate with themselves. What appears to have been almost total intransigence by North Korea in the face of Chinese diplomacy, which included a delegation to Pyongyang, forced the Chinese step-by-step to a position approaching that of the initial Japanese proposal. The final compromise resolution is far closer to Japan’s initial draft that the bland expression of displeasure initially tabled by China.

That Japan played such a key role following the missile tests was in part due to Japan’s growing confidence on the world scene and Japan’s current seat on the UN Security Council. However, another important factor was the desire on the part of the U.S. to play a low profile role in response to the launch. While there was little if any daylight between the U.S. and Japanese positions, in an effort to de-emphasize a bilateral response to North Korea, the U.S. clearly encouraged Japanese leadership. This was particularly true at the United Nations where it seemed that at each press opportunity the U.S. ambassador to the UN was standing immediately, if silently, behind the Japanese ambassador.

If there was a failure in the weeks following the test, it was in the further collapse of the already nearly defunct trilateral coordination between the United States and its two primary allies in Northeast Asia: Korea and Japan. Certainly Japan’s seat on the UN Security Council facilitated Japans leadership role. However, while South Korea is not currently on the Council, this absence alone cannot explain Seoul’s isolation. South Korea claims to not have been consulted, either by the U.S. or by Japan. On the other hand, Japanese officials have countered that their willingness to consult with Korea was rebuffed, largely due to ongoing bilateral Japan-Korea sensitivities surrounding territorial issues such as Tokdo/ Takeshima and historical legacy issues such as visits by Japanese political leaders to the Yasukuni Shrine. U.S. officials have also complained that even at the top levels Korean officials, while warning against a North Korean missile test, were unwilling to coordinate a response in the eventuality of an actual test.

In many respects, the international response to the July missile launch provides a trial run for the potentially far more serious risk that North Korea might test a nuclear device. While ultimately unheeded, the unanimity and the comparatively blunt nature of the warnings from the U.S., Japan, China, Russia, and South Korea to North Korea not to test nevertheless marked a considerable diplomatic achievement. However, it is sobering to remember that in spite of, and on some level perhaps because of, such warnings, Pyongyang opted to go forward with the tests. This failure of warnings to have any effect is even more concerning in the light of the troubling signs from North Korea in May 2005 of preparations for a nuclear test and of reports in recent weeks regarding other indications that bear close monitoring. Given the subterranean nature of a potential North Korean nuclear test, it is likely that the U.S., Japan, and the global community will not have as much advance warning, or at least not as clear a warning as was available during North Korean’s preparations for its missile launch.

Since we cannot count on advance warning, at least not in a timeframe sufficient for policy coordination, it is important that at a minimum the U.S. and its allies consult now for the eventuality of a nuclear test, even while working to avoid such a scenario. The U.S. and Japan must move quickly and quietly to involve South Korea in such planning. Not only does South Korea have a most direct interest, but Seoul’s response will likely directly affect any Chinese reaction. If Seoul does not respond firmly to a nuclear test, its inaction will decrease the likelihood of a sufficiently robust Chinese response. There is some indication that Seoul now recognizes the failure of its diplomacy in the weeks following the July missile test. Not only did Korea openly come out in opposition to the position of the U.S. and Japan, but in declaring its support for a Chinese position that even the Chinese eventually abandoned, Korea found itself isolated and irrelevant in the international response. Hopefully, the goodwill carried forward from the mid-September summit between Bush and Roh, as well as the opportunities presented by a new leadership in Japan, will allow a resumption of meaningful trilateral coordination.

The ultimate goal of the U.S., Japan, and South Korea should be to ensure that the international response to a potential nuclear test is multilateral in nature. Rather than simply waiting to see what China might do, we should work to establish prior, agreed upon responses in an international context rather then in bilateral context Not only should this make it more likely that China will respond, but may serve as deterrent to North Korea. The considerable diplomatic work done in response to the July missile test lays the groundwork for a potential post-nuclear test response. At a minimum, UN Security Council Resolution 1695 forms a new benchmark upon which future responses must inevitably build. Securing Chinese and Russian support for that resolution was unprecedented, but remains a trial run for the more important challenges that may follow.

Originally published in  Asahi Shimbun, October 4th, 2006