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North Korea: A trilateral mechanism can work

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COMMENTS

17 October 2008 10:33

Guest blogger: Brendan Taylor is a lecturer in the Graduate Studies in Strategy and Defence program, ANU.

I’m feeling a little like Japan following the latest US-North Korea nuclear deal – isolated and excluded — after my proposal for a China-North Korea-US mechanism touched so many raw nerves. But I remain convinced that this offers us the best way out of the dangerous and protracted North Korean nuclear crisis.

First, a China-North Korea-US trilateral arrangement actually minimizes the chances that Pyongyang can play Washington off against its most important regional allies. The larger the grouping, the more vulnerable it is to such a ‘divide and conquer’ strategy. Added to this, of course, is the ultimate dilemma of multilateralism – the greater the number of parties involved, the lower the common denominator which needs to be accommodated. My trilateral alternative substantially reduces both problems.

Second, China and the US together have the best chance of bringing North Korea back into line. China clearly has the most influence of any country over Pyongyang. Remember when Beijing temporarily shut off an oil pipeline to North Korea in early 2003? This ‘accident’ reportedly played a key role in bringing the North Koreans to the Six-Party negotiating table in the first place. From Pyongyang’s perspective, it is impossible to imagine an end to the nuclear crisis which doesn’t centrally involve America. Moreover, and as I noted in my previous post, it is China and the US which have the best track record when it comes to delivering tangible diplomatic outcomes in the North Korean nuclear crisis.

Third, the entire American alliance system is not going to unravel simply because the new trilateral arrangement doesn’t include Japan and South Korea. Tokyo, for example, wasn’t at all keen on the 1994 Agreed Framework when it was first signed. But the US-Japan alliance went from strength to strength from the mid-1990s onwards. Moreover, my proposed trilateral arrangement wouldn’t preclude Washington from separately coordinating its position on North Korea with Seoul and Tokyo, either bilaterally or through a process such as the Trilateral Coordination and Oversight Group, which by the late 1990s was functioning effectively as a mechanism for managing US-Japan-South Korean approaches to North Korea.

Finally, whether we’re talking about the security of Japan, South Korea or Northeast Asian stability per se, the means (a China-North Korea-US trilateral) justify the ends (resolving the North Korean nuclear crisis). Or put another way, is it preferable for Seoul and Tokyo to have a seat at the table of a defunct grouping which fails to resolve the crisis, or is it better for them to be absent from a process which has genuine potential to deliver us a nuclear-free Korean peninsula? That's a no brainer.

I’m going to really go out on a limb here and suggest that Australia might even consider hosting the new trilateral process. We’re ideally placed, in many ways. We’re one of the few Western countries to have diplomatic relations with North Korea. We’re a close ally of the US, a close friend of China, and largely trusted by both. We’re also free from much of the baggage of the Six-Party Talks. And, like it or lump it, this is what real ‘middle power’ diplomacy is genuinely about.

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