ALTHOUGH U.S. POLICY toward North Korea is ostensibly about "keeping the most dangerous weapons out of the hands of the most dangerous regimes," the reality is that we haven't even come close to doing that. North Korea almost certainly has nuclear weapons, and it is slowly developing the missiles to carry them. And there is no prospect that, short of a regime collapse, North Korea will give up those weapons. Why would it? Nukes give the DPRK a decisive deterrent against its enemies and, as the record from the mid-'90s to today shows, behaving badly pays dividends, with large amounts of food and cash flowing into North Korea from its former wartime opponents.
But pretending otherwise seems to be the order of the day, especially in Seoul and Foggy Bottom. As Christopher Hill, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, remarked in a NewsHour interview on July 5: The "issue of North Korea and its nuclear program needs a diplomatic process. We have got a very good process. The fact that we haven't gotten there with a solution, I don't think really should reflect on the process."
Leaving aside the question of what exactly Hill would like the six-party talks to "reflect" when they show no signs of succeeding, treating the talks as virtually an end in themselves has accentuated China's role in the region at the expense of our most important Pacific ally, Japan.
Now, this might make sense if we had any evidence that Beijing actually shared America's concerns about North Korea and its weapons programs. But there is little reason to believe this is the case. China has never used its substantial economic leverage over North Korea to force Pyongyang to negotiate seriously. Indeed, all the evidence suggests that China's leaders are simply interested in keeping the talks going. The very existence of the talks gives Beijing negotiating capital with Washington in other areas, such as Taiwan. More significantly, an unresolved North Korean problem dilutes America's sway in the region to China's advantage.
In the meantime, and especially in the wake of the North Korean missile launchings, this Sino-centric diplomacy is at cross purposes with sustaining good ties with Japan. Commentators have repeatedly pointed out that North Korea's test of a long-range missile failed, but they typically ignore the fact that Japan is in the range of the medium- and short-range rockets successfully tested by the DPRK on July 5.
A 1998 North Korean missile test that passed over Japan's territory persuaded Tokyo to rethink its longstanding pacifist military posture and begin, among other things, investing in ballistic missile defenses. This time around, the Japanese government took the lead in pushing for a strong U.N. Security Council resolution that would sanction North Korea for its behavior. And, on its own, it announced new sanctions on trade with the DPRK.
Tokyo was counting on an equally strong reaction from the White House. After all, President Bush had announced before the missile launches that conducting such tests was "unacceptable." Instead, what Tokyo got were reprimands from South Korea for stoking a crisis and egg on its face as Washington dispatched Hill to the region, not to round up support for a tougher line but to ask China to push Pyongyang back to the negotiating table.
This is not playing well in Japan, where polls show a large percentage of Japanese believe North Korea to be a real threat. Not surprisingly, leading Japanese politicians, such as Defense Minister Fukushiro Nukaga and Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, have reacted to the missile firings by suggesting that Japan look at the possibility of acquiring offensive weapons capable of preemptively striking North Korean launch sites. Such a course of action is only made more likely by the Japanese perception that the current U.S. policy is one of speaking incoherently and carrying no stick.
Nor is this a good time to be seen as a fickle ally. We have been asking Tokyo to take on more of the burden in our alliance. In turn, it has supported almost all of Washington's requests. Japan has dispatched ships to support American troops in Afghanistan, as well as troops to help with Iraq's reconstruction. The government has agreed to pay a significant portion of the costs associated with relocating American troops out of Japan. And Japan's politicians have shown real leadership in overcoming the country's pacifist past to be a more responsible ally to the United States in the region and globally.
But all of this is premised on their trust in us, and their expectation that we will mind their interests as well as our own. Following a diplomatic track that makes Japan's concerns secondary to the neverending, never- successful six-party talks is a sure way to dampen that trust.
Gary Schmitt is a resident scholar, and Dan Blumenthal a resident fellow, at the American Enterprise Institute.