New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, former US ambassador to the United Nations, secretary of energy in the Clinton Administration and special envoy to North Korea, is going to visit North Korea early next week.
The news of the visit came at a crucial point in the development of the situation around the Korean Peninsula. The North has been allegedly attacking targets on South Korean territory, while South Korea, the US and Japan have been conducting joint military exercises in close proximity to the North Korean shore, including the disputed waters near the Yeonpyeong Island recently shelled by North Korean artillery.
While tension was escalating around the Korean issue, both sides tried hard to demonstrate their determination to stand firm till the very end. Just recently, the head of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen visited South Korea and vigorously expressed US readiness to stand by South Korea in any case.
And a couple of days ago, North Korean authorities invited prominent American nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker and showed him hundreds of centrifuges that can be used for enriching uranium for military purposes. The message sent by North Korean leadership was clear, “Do not try to use force against us the way you did in Iraq or Afghanistan. While Iraq was accused of possessing the weapons it never had, we can produce them in a very short period of time. And retaliation will be imminent.”
The most peculiar thing about all this fuss around the North – South standoff on the Korean Peninsula and around it, is that neither of the parties involved is saying what it really thinks.
Whatever one may think about the present North Korean leadership, one thing is clear: no one there is a suicidal maniac. And all responsible people around Kim Jong II definitely understand that a nuclear standoff with the US would mean suicide. It is still questionable whether North Korea possesses nuclear warheads. But what it does not possess and is quite unlikely to possess in the nearest future, is means of delivering them over any significant distance. Therefore, no matter how many centrifuges they show to the outside world, the outcome of a possible (better say, impossible) nuclear gamble is clear: North Korea would be wiped off the surface in a matter of a couple of hours.
At the same time, muscle-flexing by US military leaders like Mike Mullen means little more than just pure PR. While a military victory over North Korea does not seem to be a big problem, it might involve much more serious complications for the US in the region. Until now, China has stood firm as a North Korean ally. Confronting North Korea is one thing, confronting China – even for the last boy-scout empire that the US is trying hard to remain – is completely different.
Therefore, all the maneuvers around the Korean Peninsula are bound to remain in the diplomatic field. The US is conducting joint military exercise not in order to explore the possibilities of a direct military strike (after the failures in Afghanistan and Iraq, such a gamble is not to be expected in any foreseeable future), but rather to rally up its allies in the region (primarily, South Korea and Japan) to show the only country that matters here – that is, China – that the declining superpower is still to be taken into account.
And this is the only dimension that really matters. The whole story is not about South and North Korea, or the US and North Korea. The story is about the US and its main geopolitical rival - China.
On the other hand, the US – China standoff offers opportunities for local gains for smaller parties, one of them being represented by Bill Richardson. For a former Washington celebrity, being confined to New Mexico governorship might seem a kind of exile. Coming back to international politics at a moment regarded by many to be crucial would mean returning to the front pages of major newspapers. Obviously, Richardson’s voyage to Pyongyang will not result in any significant breakthrough beyond the usual rhetoric. But in the long run, when the crisis is over and it turns out that it did not end in a war (which is out of the question any way), Richardson might try to ascribe the peaceful solution to himself.
But, generally speaking, the New Mexico Governor’s journey to Pyongyang seems to be a part of a broader policy of “stick and carrot”. The “stick policy” has shown its futility. Therefore, the time has come to offer North Koreans a carrot, personified by Bill Richardson.
Whether the North Koreans will swallow the carrot or look for a substantial payment for stepping back is yet to be seen. Most probably, as has always been the case in times of Korean crises, they will try to bargain for more concessions from the US and South Korea in order to feed their own population and to ward off an imminent internal crisis.