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Northeast Asia Peace Initiative

D. Bayarkhuu: Mongolian Perspectives on the Korean Peninsula

Bilateral vs. multilateral approaches

Mongolia's foreign policy towards Northeast Asia can be depicted at two levels: bilateral and regional. At the bilateral level, Mongolia has been concerned with specific gains in relations with individual countries like Russia, China, Japan, U.S. and South Korea for economic and security benefits. After more than a decade Mongolia has accomplished a lot in its bilateral relations with the countries of Northeast Asia.

At present, Mongolia is probably the only country in Northeast Asia which does not have substantial disputes and political problems with other countries of this region. Mongolia's bilateral relationships with individual powers are developing according to separate dynamics. Mongolia is relatively isolated from competition or conflict among the large powers in the region, and its fate is only marginally important to a broader balance of power among the regional powers. In other words, at present neither of the regional powers has a dominant strategy over Mongolia, so the overall external environment is favorable for Mongolia. Mongolia's best course of action, at least for the time being, is to depend on its own strategy towards the region.

Mongolia has consistently sought economic and security integration into the region, both to alleviate its economic difficulties and to ensure its security needs. Based on its security and development needs, Mongolia determined that its main objectives of multilateral strategy toward Northeast Asia are to: "strengthen its position in this region and secure a constructive participation in the political and economic integration process, contribute to the implementation of international non-proliferation mechanisms and disarmament, take an active part in the process of initiating dialogues and negotiations on the issues of strengthening regional security and creating a collective security mechanism." Mongolia's national security concept "constitutes a part of the international security and as such is directly dependent on the latter…. Military-political security can be ensured through a collective security system by joint efforts or participation in such a system."

Mongolia has been one of the active supporters of regional cooperation in Northeast Asia. In 1989, Mongolia suggested the creation of a "mechanism of political dialogue" in Northeast Asia to discuss issues aimed at developing effective and mutually beneficial cooperation in the fields of economy, science and technology, culture and education, ecology and humanitarian links. Mongolia also participates in the largest regional multilateral economic cooperation project: the Tumen River Project.

However, during the past decade, Mongolia's overall participation in regional processes, especially in Northeast Asia, was modest, largely due to Mongolia's own political and economic weight in the region and the slow process of regionalization in Northeast Asia. Mongolia's foreign policy toward Northeast Asia has been largely determined by bilateral relations. Mongolia has not yet moved far beyond the level of separate bilateral relations with the regional countries. Since Mongolia is looking to benefit from regional processes as well as to get out of recent economic difficulties and ensure its security, an efficient multilateral strategy obviously will become increasingly important. In order to achieve its policy objectives toward the region, Mongolia needs to improve its foreign policy not only in bilateral settings but also in multilateral ones.

Mongolia should take advantage of its friendly relations with all countries of the region and seek a channel of multilateral dialogue among them, get other countries involved, and establish a framework in which to exercise its role in multilateral settings. For this purpose, Mongolia can seek new coalitions and new forms of cooperation among the regional parties, like the Six-Party Talks in Beijing, which transform bilateral relations into a group relationship and cooperation. This strategy would facilitate and deepen Mongolia's bilateral relations and increase the net benefits not only for Mongolia but also for the overall regional cooperation.

Mongolia shares the concern of the international community over North Korea's nuclear program. The situation on the Korean Peninsula has a direct bearing on Mongolia's national security. We appreciate and support the diplomatic efforts aimed at resolving the issue peacefully through dialogue and engagement.

The Korean Peninsula as a flashpoint

The fall of the Soviet Union, China's embrace of capitalism, and common post-Cold War transition processes have brought about neither the collapse of North Korea nor the end of the confrontation on the Korean Peninsula, contrary to the predictions of many analysts who presumed that North Korea would not long survive the loss of its Communist allies without being forced to engage in economic and political reform.

As North Korean leader Kim Jong-il surveys the world, it cannot be a comforting sight. While North Korea's totalitarian political system remains a throwback to Stalin's Soviet Union and the China of Mao Zedong, in most of the world Communism disappeared a long time ago. And it is Kim Jong-il's fear of meeting a similar fate, many analysts say, that underpins North Korea's abrasive stance and policies. Facing U.S. troops in neighboring South Korea, a hostile administration in Washington, and an economy that has staggered from one catastrophe to another, Pyongyang feels pushed against the wall. But from 2001, Kim Jong-il has taken some dramatic steps to turn things around. For one, he has borrowed the idea of market-style reforms from the Chinese by creating a capitalist-style "special administrative region" of Sinuijiu on the Chinese border. The reclusive regime also sought to mend fences with neighboring South Korea by allowing the resumption of talks and building railway links between the two countries.

Yet after the end of the Cold War, North Korea has deified the "natural laws" of the politics of transition to the post-Cold War era, clinging to survival and even finding limited support from an international community that fears the consequences of a shift away from the current status quo in the international relations of Northeast Asia towards an unpredictable, uncertain and possibly unstable regional security environment.  

Vast armed forces have accumulated in the region, which has more than 10 million servicemen in total. It has a considerable number of military, naval and air force bases and other military facilities. In the past few years, missile-space technologies and weapons of mass destruction have been proliferating in the region. This military might points to the great concern of the regional states about their interests and political goals. Given the fact that the Korean Peninsula has a heavy concentration of military capability and sophisticated weapons, further reinforced by the U.S. presence, any missteps on either side will eventually result in a catastrophe.

The way Pyongyang perceives itself and the world has to be taken as a reality that needs to be incorporated into policy considerations by all parties interacting with North Korea. There is nothing more dangerous and counterproductive than "conceptual imperialism," whereby concepts are defined and a party other than the actor himself characterizes behavioral orientations.

The recent nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula has demonstrated once more that Korea is a flashpoint in international politics that can trigger a major conflict among the powers. If true, this chilling turning point in the half-century-long Korean conflict could lead to difficult choices:

1. A nuclear-skittish Japan may decide it now needs such a weapon itself as a deterrent, leading to an arms race with China and increased military tension between Asia's two giants as they compete for influence in the region.

2. South Korea, whose defenses include 37,000 American troops and a U.S. threat of nuclear retaliation, may just decide to meet many of North Korea's demands in the face of potential nuclear blackmail.

3. U.S. President George W. Bush, who ordered the invasion of Iraq for, among other things, merely a suspected nuclear-weapons program, may feel public pressure to treat North Korea the same way. Even if Mr. Bush resists such pressure, he would likely push U.S.-China relations to the limit by demanding that Beijing use its leverage over its Communist ally and force the North to give up its nukes.

Such scenarios reveal the complex power relations of Northeast Asia and the difficulty of dealing with this odd, Cold War remnant called North Korea. This announcement could just be bluster and bluff. But without knowing for sure, the U.S. and others will need to act as if the North has now joined the world's nuclear club. Unlike Iraq, however, North Korea is unlikely to slip a weapon of mass destruction to Al Quaeda. And China, in theory, can check any North Korean move that upsets China's interests. On those two points, Bush need not threaten the North.

George W. Bush listed North Korea, along with Iraq and Iran, as members of what he called an "axis of evil." North Korea and Iraq are already seen as two major threats to world peace. The North Korean regime might erupt from the interior; if so it would lead to serious consequences.

Scenarios for the future

North Korea had to choose between its nuclear arms program and feeding its people, but Washington had no plans to take military action against it. Tensions on the Korean Peninsula will surely continue to escalate if the U.S. and Pyongyang resume their Cold War-era hostility.

It is proper to note the three scenarios for unifying the two Koreas proposed by former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry:

1. Soft landing - peaceful unification
2. Implosion - breakdown of North Korea through internal crisis
3. Explosion - breakdown of North Korea through internal and external impact

Few believe that the two Koreas can be successfully reunited on the basis of the German model. Instead, most observers believe that eventual reunification can best be achieved through an incrementalist approach, one in which integration takes place step by step. Through this procedure, success in achieving limited steps in integration could create the necessary support and confidence to proceed to the next step. In fact, to a limited degree, this process has already begun.  South Korean President Kim Dae-jung initiated the North East Asia Peace and Stability Declaration, possibly including Mongolia among the U.S., Japan, Russia, China and the two Koreas. In his address on the 51st Anniversary of National Liberation (1996), President Kim Young-sam stated his position regarding peace and inter-Korean cooperation favoring stability in North Korea and opposing isolation of North Korea or unification imposed by one side on the other.

Regarding the future of the North Korean regime, several scenarios have been described, including a transitional regime under Kim Jong-il, a reformist military-technocrat coalition, or a violent collapse. Under the first option, only limited engagement between North Korea and its neighbors can be expected. If the second scenario takes place, the North will fully engage with and expand relations with its neighbors. Variants of the third scenario entail destabilizing political, economic and social developments such as violent clashes within the North, military incidents by rogue forces, large-scale refugee movements, and economic implosion. In a collapse scenario, South Korea's deterrence policy against the North would be least effective because of the fragmentation of control in the North. Furthermore, a collapse would involve other countries around Korea readjusting their policies in the face of possible reunification.  China and North Korea have a military alliance, and Russia maintains heavy military forces. The U.S. emphasizes the importance of this region with rhetoric such as the Pacific community and the engagement and enlargement policy.

If the U.S. pulls out of the region, a security vacuum will result, and it is likely that China and Japan would compete fiercely. Then Russia would follow. If the two Koreas are reunified, a united Korea might be inhospitable to a continued U.S. military presence. It might result in a growing Chinese influence over the peninsula and could lead to the political isolation of Japan in the region.

To promote a post-unification environment more friendly to America, some analysts suggest consolidating the trilateral Washington-Tokyo-Seoul relationship. To accomplish this goal, four tasks are necessary:

1. Use current tensions with North Korea to build security cooperation between Japan and South Korea. Throughout the 1990s, the threat of North Korean implosion or aggression drove the unprecedented security cooperation between the two nations, involving cabinet-level bilateral meetings, search-and-rescue exercises, port calls, noncombatant evacuation operations, and academic military exchanges — all despite the deep historical mistrust between Seoul and Tokyo. These formerly taboo activities (previous South Korean presidents vowed never to engage in security cooperation with their one-time colonizer, Japan, even during the Cold War and despite the North Korean threat) built confidence and created an entirely new dimension to Seoul-Tokyo relations beyond political and economic ties.

2. Infuse the U.S.-Japan and U.S.-South Korea alliances with a meaning and identity larger than the Cold War. History shows that the most resilient alliances share a common ideology that runs deeper than the shared external threats that brought the alliance into existence. Washington must therefore deepen its alliance with South Korea and Japan, moving it beyond its narrow anti-North Korea basis. The allies have talked about "maintaining regional stability" as their broader purpose, but they can do better than that. A host of other shared values can be drawn on, such as common preference for liberal democracy, open economic markets, nonproliferation, universal human rights, anti-terrorism and peacekeeping). Grounding the alliance on ideals, not just an outside threat, would not only give the relationships some permanence but would also prevent the alignments from being washed away by shifting geo-strategic currents.

3. Somehow consolidate the trilateral U.S.-Japan-South Korea alliance as a way to reaffirm the U.S. presence in the region but without offering any unconditional security guarantees. The United States has always been the strongest advocate of better Japan-South Korea relations, but the likelihood of Seoul and Tokyo responding positively to these American burden-sharing entreaties has been highest, counter-intuitively, when Washington has been perceived as less interested in underwriting the region's security. The U.S. position in Asia should therefore be reduced enough to nudge the allies toward consolidating their relationship — but not reduced so much that Japan and South Korea choose self-help solutions outside the alliance framework. What this probably means in practice is a greatly reduced American troop presence but maintenance of the nuclear umbrella over the region.

4. Consolidate the trilateral alliance without irking China. Efforts at trilateral cooperation should be as low-profile and transparent to Beijing as possible. Seoul-Tokyo security cooperation, for example, should focus not on military assets but rather on transport platforms (for preplanned disaster relief, for example). The United States, meanwhile, could also shift its military presence in the area to one based primarily on air and sea power, with less pre-positioning of materiel and fewer ground forces south of the 38th Parallel.

The East Asian rim contains a number of potential trouble spots. The most serious ones are the Korean Peninsula and the Taiwan Strait. For us, the situation on the Korean Peninsula is the biggest ever threat to regional and international security and poses an almost intractable dilemma. Multilateral pressure on North Korea is of critical importance. Thus, positive U.S.-China, U.S.-Japan, China-Japan, Russia-Japan, and Russia-China interactions related to the Korean Peninsula are the realistic basis for effective regional development.

From a paper presented at a conference on "Innovative Approaches to Peace and Stability in Northeast Asia: Focus on the Korean Peninsula," May 26-28, 2005, Moscow, Russia, co-organized by the Interreligious and International Federation for World Peace and the Russian Political Science Association. Dashdorj Bayarkhuu is Counselor to the Department of Policy Planning, Information and Monitoring, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mongolia.

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