Asian teamwork key to tackling Korean crisis

MUTUAL cooperation among nations can advance their interests more effectively than any other approach, especially with disease control, financial crisis and war prevention. The obvious example is the current bird flu epidemic. If only authorities in Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam, especially, had immediately come clean when their birds started dropping like flies, Asia would be in better shape today. Instead, at least 16 people have died, tourism has been hurt and financial markets are fluttering. Similarly, the same formula - come clean, work together, let’s get the job done - was a major lesson of the Asian financial crisis (1997-1999). This economic epidemic also originated in Thailand, when its currency, the baht, began to fall in value against other currencies, as if diseased. An immediate and massive regional effort to contain the Thai currency ‘flu’ might well have blocked its pernicious spread to other Asian currencies.

By Tom Plate (Distributed Tribune Media Services International)

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Published: Tue 10 Feb 2004, 12:22 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 1:14 AM

Instead, economies collapsed, millions lost jobs, and tragic suicides ensued until a finally alarmed West intervened to dampen the currency contagion.

The resort to the military option is yet another dangerous pathology that needs regional cooperation to contain. A current obvious scenario would be the nuclearisation of East Asia - a looming possibility if North Korea proceeds apace with its nuclear weapons build-up.

Pakistani nuclear experts, we now know, infected a very willing Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the world’s last Stalinist regime, with atomic secrets and technology. Even so, North Korea, economically weak and still relatively isolated, is not the main destablilising threat to the region - serial nuclear proliferation is.

Yes, it would take a lot for the Republic of Korea, the successful democratic, capitalistic country to the south, to go nuclear - but a fully atomic North Korea might just tip Seoul’s scales. And, yes, it would be like moving a political mountain the size of Mount Kilimanjaro for Japan (with its horrific Hiroshima and Nagasaki memories) to go nuclear - but the spectre of Pyongyang playing around with nuclear missiles might just be that mountain-mover.

This scenario is avoidable, however. As with the region’s bird flu and currency crises, three remedies are required. One is containment; the other is money; the third is close-knit regional teamwork.

A terrific opportunity presents itself on February 25, in Beijing. There, North Korean negotiators are scheduled to sit down with high-level representatives from China, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the United States for round two of the so-called six-party talks. These talks do not require rocket science; the issue is simple. North Korea is prepared to freeze its nuclear programme in return for a guarantee of non-aggression from the United States, which it fears desires to Saddamise it. Next, the North would need to begin dismantling its atomic arsenal piece by piece as economic aid pours into its diseased economy.

Should all this occur, the net regional gain here would be staggering. But there is one participant in the Beijing talks, however, that is unenthused about re-negotiating a freeze and re-starting an economic aid programme: the Bush administration. It points out that the United States in 1994 took precisely this approach, and it turned out to be a turkey of a deal: Pyongyang cheated on its promise not to re-arm.

Washington’s cynicism is understandable - but it is dysfunctional. The Bush administration needs to listen more carefully to Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul and let them take the lead on economic aid if it refuses to be seen as ‘rewarding’ North Korea’s perfidy. As for the nettlesome verification question - is the North really freezing? And then, is it really disarming? - this is only a short-term problem if the overwhelming and presumably inevitable consequence of a six-party regional-security pact is to open up North Korea. Its future scenario could include substantial investment, rapid modernisation, a dose of helpful Westernisation and a boatload of Western tourists - not to mention cagey CIA agents dressed like used car salesmen from Fargo.

Moreover, China, which has as much to lose as anyone if the talks fail, and which has developed very businesslike relations with the Bush administration, should take the lead role in arranging a verification scheme acceptable to Washington.

But this almost misses the point: the end goal is not simply the denuclearisation of North Korea, as desirable as this would be, but the political and economic integration of semi-isolated North Korea into the East Asian region.

Only regional mutual cooperation can contain the kinds of diseases that plague everyone, whether bird flu, currency contagion or the cancer of war.

Japan’s Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi framed the issue as well as anyone recently when he told Tokyo reporters: “I hope the talks will serve as a step for North Korea to become accepted in the international community.”

Washington must avoid playing the role of the spoiler and let those who live closest to the problem take the lead in solving it. It’s simply a measure of mature disease control.

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