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Last week's agreement on North Korea's nuclear program has many critics. Those on the right have assailed the Bush administration for abandoning its core principles and setting a bad example for other states that misbehave (read: Iran) by rewarding North Korea's blackmail. They also maintain that the agreement is so vague and full of loopholes that North Korea will never adhere to it. Those on the Left, meanwhile, claim that the deal came too late and at too great a cost. They argue that the administration, blinded by its own ideology, scuttled the 1994 Agreed Framework only to sign a very similar deal six years later, after Pyongyang had restarted its nuclear program, quintupled its plutonium stockpile, increased its number of nuclear bombs from two to perhaps eight, and conducted a nuclear test.
There are elements of truth in both critiques, but there is no denying that the accord reached in Beijing marks a watershed moment for the Korean peninsula and, more broadly, for Northeast Asia.
Some of the reasons for this are clearer than others. For North Korea, the agreement represents its last and best shot at avoiding absolute isolation. If Pyongyang fails to adhere to the deal, it will infuriate Beijing, which served as host for the negotiations and whose prestige is now on the line. More important, China wants the nuclear issue resolved before the 2008 Olympics, especially after North Korea's nuclear test in October demonstrated how willing Kim Jong Il's regime is to jeopardize regional stability for its own benefit. If North Korea walks away now from a deal it signed with China, it will risk losing critical Chinese aid and prove to all parties, including South Korea, that it can never be trusted as a negotiating partner.
A more important reason that last week's agreement represents a watershed moment may not be as clear, however. Three years ago in Foreign Affairs ("How to Deal with North Korea," March/April 2003), we proposed that a nuclear deal with North Korea negotiated within a multiparty framework could serve as a catalyst for a much needed Northeast Asia Security Forum, initially composed of the six signatories to the recent accord. Talks on normalizing relations between Japan and North Korea and the United States and North Korea could serve as a pivot for this security forum, which would address broader issues such as arms control, conflict prevention, crisis management, and conflict resolution.
The time for a forum of this nature is right, particularly from a U.S. perspective. Northeast Asia is home to three of the world's largest economies and accounts for 24% of all U.S. trade and 25% of the world's economic output. After a long period of quiescence, China, South Korea, and Japan have recently begun to reassert their national identities and come into their own. Put another way, the United States is no longer the dominant player in the region. China in particular has taken a large share of the stage at Washington's expense. Gone also are the days when South Korea or Japan could automatically be counted upon to support the United States.
If structured properly, however, a Northeast Asia Security Forum could allow the United States to reassert its leadership in a way that is not possible in the Asean Regional Forum, the theater's other, much larger, security grouping. The new gathering could also provide a valuable safety mechanism. Japan, China and South Korea are historic rivals. Rising nationalism and assertiveness in each nation is a dangerous trend that must be managed carefully. The forum we propose would help handle this transition, particularly with respect to preventing Japan's remilitarization and perhaps keeping China's military buildup in check.
The groundwork for such an initiative has been laid. After embracing a unilateral approach for most of his administration, President Bush is now on record as favoring multilateral solutions to regional issues. Similarly, China, which used to shun multilateral organizations, has begun to embrace them.
In order to give the Northeast Asia Security Forum some teeth, however, Washington must expend the necessary capital. A six-party summit of heads of state will be required to lay the foundation for this forum. Beyond launching an important new initiative, a summit would have direct benefits for the leaders involved. A successful meeting would give President Bush another much-needed foreign policy success. The same can be said of Roh Moo Hyun of South Korea, whose popularity hovers around the single digits. A summit would also allow Hu Jintao to build upon last week's success and further position himself as one of the region's most important powerbrokers, while Japan's Shinzo Abe would show early in his new term that he has a firm grasp of his country's salient security issues, freeing him up to address more pressing domestic concerns.
Negotiations that take place under duress often yield unanticipated ideas and unintended benefits. Reducing the nuclear threat posed by North Korea is an achievement to applaud, but hopefully the agreement will ultimately do more: serve as a catalyst for a Northeast Asia Security Forum that ushers in a new era of stability that shapes this critical region for decades to come. In short, it is a watershed moment -- and not just for North Korea.