Let me turn away for a moment from my usual focus on ancient Chinese thought, and consider the North Korean nuclear question.
In one of my courses ("The International Politics of East Asia"), we have been discussing North Korea for the past week and a half. Students have read Bruce Cumings' book, North Korea, for background, and we have read several articles that outline the US debate over what to do about that country's nuclear ambitions.
So, we were ready when the North Korea missile launch came into the headlines over the past several weeks. Today's news that Pyongyang is threatening to rebuild its nuclear facilities is thus not a surprise; rather, it is a depressing eternal return...
Yesterday, I asked my students what the US should do about North Korea, and they came up with some principles. First, there was a fairly broad feeling in the classroom that the issue must be handled multilaterally, within the context of the Six Party Talks. This is sensible. The failures of the early Bush administration were rooted in its doggedly unproductive unilateralism. The US obviously has an important role to play in the whole affair, but its actions must be coordinated with those of China, South Korea and Japan.
Another principle was expressed in language that might not be familiar to some of the older analysts out there:
Don't feed the troll.
This struck me as quite perceptive. It recognizes that much of what North Korea does is a matter of creating a kind of shock to produce a threat that it can then trade for resources. They want us to get anxious and worried. If that is what they want, then obviously we should keep our cool. We cannot completely ignore them. Quite the contrary, this is important business and needs to be a fairly high priority for US foreign policy. But neither should we be drawn into their tantrums and manipulations. We need to control the agenda. The missile firing is a side-show to the main nuclear event. The North is using it to gain leverage in the Six Party Talks. We need to recognize it as a violation but not let it determine what our interests and strategies should for the broader nuclear issues. Don't feed the troll but focus on the key issues.
Of course, if we downplay the missile firing, they might come up with some other distraction. I'm imaging that since the Somali pirate sage drew media attention away from the NK missile over the weekend, Kim Jong-il might now be planning on creating his own pirate band. It might get him some more face time on CNN...
More seriously, however, I still think that the US needs to change the game with NK. For too long we have been in a reactive position: they create some threat, we respond. They are the ones driving the dynamic of the situation. What if we totally reversed the flow and suddenly gave them much of what they say they want: formal diplomatic recognition; expanded economic ties; a reiteration of the security guarantee of 2005 (in the context of the Six Party Talks); hell, invite Kim to the Oscars next year. Give them many, many carrots which, in the intermediate term, could create new sources of leverage for us (once you give a carrot, you can then threaten to take it away...). In other words, let's do what I have been arguing for some time: flood the zone.
North Korea is clearly a problem for the US, China, Japan and South Korea. But our polices have not been working for many years now. Perhaps it's time for something new (though I recognize that domestic US politics makes this highly unlikely). Why not follow these guidelines:
Don't feed the troll.
Flood the zone.