Only a few years ago, a meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation countries would have focused on good intentions about making trade freer and more open. The fact this meeting is dominated by talk of North Korea and terrorism underlines not only the preoccupations of the Bush administration but also how the world has changed.
That President Bush is talking about presenting North Korea with a five-nation security guarantee suggests at least some people in the administration are starting to come to grips with reality in the region. There are few attractive choices when it comes to North Korea, and a military strike by the United States could be catastrophic for South Korea and U.S. troops stationed there.
That the administration refuses to talk about a formal non-aggression treaty between the United States and North Korea, a demand North Korea has insisted on, suggests that it is not only Asians who worry about “saving face.”
“What’s striking about this whole trip is that nobody is talking about the most important ongoing change in the region,” said Chalmers Johnson, an expert on Asia and author of the forthcoming book, “The Sorrows of Empire.” Mainland China, according to Professor Johnson, is rapidly displacing the United States not only as a political force but as an economic power, and the United States has barely noticed. “But Japan, South Korea and other countries are adjusting rapidly,” he said.
The most effective way to defuse the real threat North Korea’s apparent desire to develop a nuclear weapon poses — a potential threat underlined by the firing of a missile — is to let North Korea’s neighbors handle it. Reliable rumors that Japan, for example, is considering developing a nuclear weapon would bring North Korea to heel faster than anything the United States might do.
If the president’s apparent openness to a non-aggression agreement that’s not called a treaty is a first step in this direction, well and good. The U.S. military is already overextended, and taking on new crusades would hardly be advisable.