Zbigniew Brzezinski, former top U.S. security official, on Wednesday advised the incoming Park Geun-hye government to strengthen trilateral security ties with Washington and Tokyo to cope with the escalating nuclear threat from North Korea.
In an email interview with The Korea Herald, he said the international efforts to denuclearize North Korea fell flat largely because China and Russia remained lackluster in curbing their key partner in Northeast Asia.
The renowned international relations expert who served as national security advisor to former President Jimmy Carter also stressed that in consideration of European experiences, Seoul and Tokyo could move their relationship forward beyond the historical enmity stemming from Japan’s 1910-45 colonization of the peninsula.
“(The incoming South Korean leader can handle the nuclear threat) by maintaining strong links with the U.S. which has the capacity to continue deterring North Korea; and by avoiding increased frictions with Japan, given the fact that Japan is also an important ally of the U.S. and a necessary indirect participant in holding up a U.S. nuclear umbrella over South Korea,” he said.
On Tuesday the reclusive state carried out a third nuclear test in its northeast village of Punggye-ri in defiance of international warnings.
Apparently aimed at enhancing its technology for miniaturizing nuclear warheads, the test sharply escalated Pyongyang’s nuclear threat. It came after its successful launch in December of a rocket, which experts presume had a potential range of 10,000 km.
The test has deepened the skepticism over international diplomatic efforts to denuclearize the North that have continued for the last two decades. Brzezinski noted that the failure of these efforts is partially attributable to China and Russia.
“I think they (the denuclearization efforts) failed because China and Russia were not prepared to be as critical as was needed, though lately both have shown signs of realizing that failure to address the North Korean challenge might not be productive for both China’s and Russia’s long-term interests,” he said.
Both Beijing and Moscow had made a flurry of unprecedented last-ditch efforts to dissuade Pyongyang from conducting the third test, which is feared to bring the North much closer to its long-cherished nuclear power state.
As the North’s atomic test might attest to Beijing’s limited, ineffective influence over Pyongyang, some observers said China might see it as a slap in the face, which signaled the North could undermine its long-term national interest.
As for the future of North Korea, the Polish-American political scientist predicted that any change in the regime, should it occur, would be “sudden and unexpected.”
“Quite frankly, no one really knows how stable that regime is. I suspect the rulers of North Korea know even less because they live in a semi-isolated state of intoxication with their power,” he said.
While underscoring Korea’s need to cooperate with Japan over security challenges posed by the North and potentially by China, the scholar pointed to the reconciliation processes that took place in Europe.
“Please bear in mind that very difficult historical animosities have gradually been overcome in Europe. South Korea and Japan could and should take a close look at the way in which Franco-German reconciliation was promoted in the course of several decades,” he said.
“They should look even more closely at the similar process of reconciliation that has been successfully moving forward in the German-Polish relationship. The German-Polish relationship in some respects is probably more similar to the Korean-Japanese relationship in that the victim was almost always the weaker state.”
Historical, territorial issues have been persistent sources of diplomatic friction between Seoul and Tokyo. They include South Korean women forced into sexual slavery by Japan’s military during World War II and Tokyo’s distortion of historical facts. Japan’s sovereignty claim to Korea’s easternmost islets of Dokdo has further soured public sentiment here against Japan.
The historical antipathy has also impeded the two countries’ security cooperation. Last year, they pushed to sign a military information-sharing pact to better deal with North Korean threats, but failed amid public disapproval here.
In his 2012 book “Strategic Vision,” Brzezinski put South Korea in the category of the “geographically most endangered states” alongside Georgia, Taiwan, Belarus, Ukraine, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In the book, he said a U.S. decline would confront South Korea with “painful choices”: either to accept Chinese regional dominance or seek a much stronger relationship with Japan. He also noted that South Korea could face a military or political threat on its own if U.S. security commitments in East Asia became less credible.
Brzezinski is a counselor and trustee at the think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies. He is also a senior research professor of international relations at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, in Washington.
By Song Sang-ho (firstname.lastname@example.org