Geopolitical Diary: A Surprise Visit to North Korea
By: Stratfor.comAugust 6, 2009
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Former U.S. President Bill Clinton left Pyongyang on Tuesday after a visit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Clinton was there to secure the pardon of two U.S. journalists held in custody, and for unofficial talks with Kim.

The diplomatic move drew comparisons to former President Jimmy Carter's call on Pyongyang in 1994 to defuse tensions-which appeared to be escalating toward conflict-over North Korea's nuclear program. The visit might mark an opening for dialogue and a conclusion of North Korea's most recent cycle of actions, which have included tests of missiles and nuclear devices since February.

The North Korean situation is not necessarily significant in and of itself, and no important geopolitical changes appeared to take place on Tuesday. The regime in Pyongyang has clung to its half of the Korean Peninsula, staving off a hostile world with whatever tools have been at its disposal, for half a century. Pyongyang pursues greater weapons capabilities because it wants to increase its security, maintain leverage over potential enemies and eventually develop a credible nuclear deterrent. All interested parties are familiar with Pyongyang's methods. The eruption of total war remains a distant prospect because the North Korean leadership is rational and does not want to be annihilated.

While rumors that Clinton or former Vice President Al Gore would travel to North Korea have circulated previously, Clinton's trip came without advance notice-suggesting details had been worked out privately between the United States and North Korea. There has been much talk of late that the states would formally open bilateral negotiations. North Korea's latest actions have been designed to get Washington to negotiate, and ultimately to win a non-aggression guarantee from the United States. The Americans have a host of concerns elsewhere and do not want to be distracted by North Korea, but they also are tired of repeating the cycle of de-escalation, negotiation and agreement-signing only to have Pyongyang renege on its commitments and start the process over again. Washington therefore has suggested a comprehensive deal rather than one that requires gradual steps, in which North Korea would instantly abandon its nuclear program and the United States would offer full diplomatic recognition and ties in return.

The United States is in the best position to make any such deal, not only because of its superpower status but also because of its geographic distance from the Korean Peninsula. Washington has little to worry about from the North in the post-Cold War environment. Even in the event of war, the United States would not be touched, though its allies might suffer. Regime collapse in Pyongyang would put refugees on other countries' doorsteps. Distance from North Korea provides the United States with plenty of time and leeway in determining what to do-and whether to do anything at all.

The same cannot be said for North Korea's neighbors. For South Korea, China and Japan, the perennial "North Korean issue" affects the regional balance of power. These states do not want war to break out, nor do they want to have to handle the fallout if the regime in Pyongyang implodes. But they also have individual interests and concerns.

Japan's concern, for instance, is to have adequate defenses against the North's short-range ballistic missiles, and to prevent nuclear proliferation. Otherwise, North Korea provides Japan with a convenient justification for its ongoing rearmament program and the expanding role of its Self-Defense Forces. While Chinese leaders would prefer for Pyongyang to be less blustering and attention-seeking, they appreciate their neighbor's ability to rile up the United States and its allies, thereby deflecting attention from Beijing. Conventional warfare poses a direct threat to South Korea-and in less extreme scenarios, the North's behavior scares investors away and creates difficulties for Seoul's economic plans. In the long run, the South Koreans hope for reunification of the two Koreas, a vision that the governments in China and Japan do not necessarily share.

Northeast Asia has a troubled history, to say the least, and at present circumstances are very fluid in the region. China is rapidly gaining in both military and economic strength; Japan is at a crossroads, struggling with economic and demographic decline; and South Korea is, as usual, balanced precariously between these two greater powers. North Korea adds another contingency to the mix. Therefore, the North's three neighbors are watching closely to see how the United States manages relations with Pyongyang. What happens ultimately will have a direct impact on their calculations regarding not only Pyongyang, but also regarding each other.

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