Dec 312010

I have had a hard time understanding the international opprobrium poured onto Julian Assange in the last few weeks. It is a classic case of “shooting the messenger.” I would suspect that very few people could name the actual source of the leaked cables even if they were told that he shares a surname with two of the NFL’s best quarterbacks, who also happen to be brothers. I do not condone Assange’s release of this information, but after this tremendous cache of documents was downloaded and smuggled out of whatever bunker the said Manning was working in, it was only a matter of time before it was copied and posted somewhere on the web.

Be that as it may, Assange clearly violated the founding principles of Wikileaks, which as stated in 2007 were to ferret out corruption in the repressive regimes of the former Soviet Bloc, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East (The Eoconomist, “Unpluggable” December 2nd, 2010). As my favorite British satirical comedy radio show, The Now Show, pointed out last week, mostly what Wikileaks reveals is that the United States often says slightly different things to different people, which is also known as diplomacy. Is this really something that should be exposed? Also at a personal level, how would each of us like it if we had our own personal Julian Assange popping up to inform people when what we were not telling them exactly what we thought?

But there is another side of me that feels differently about Wikileaks. As a diplomatic historian I normally spend a shocking amount of time reading exactly the kind of cables that Wikileaks published in a publication called Foreign Relations of the United States (referred to as FRUS in the field). The FRUS volumes are organized and released by the Department of State and are an excellent source of information for historians such as myself, the only inconvenience is the thirty year lag between when the cables are written and the FRUS volumes are published. With this in mind, what Assange has done for me and my ilk is allow us to read cables that I would have had to wait until I was 67 years old to read in the FRUS documents. Under these circumstances it is hard not to be excited about the leaks.

So what have these cables revealed? I have certainly not read them all, but have limited my reading to my academic areas of expertise, U.S. relations with the Korean peninsula. Despite what David E. Sanger of the New York Times says: “The cables on North Korea are long on guesses and short on facts”, some very important and interesting information has come out. Among the most interesting revelations that have been mostly ignored so far by the American media is that North Korea is looking to improve relations with the United States.

In 09SEOUL672, a source whose name was redacted (presumable Korean), told U.S. Embassy staff in Seoul that the North Korean leadership’s second priority, after securing a smooth dynastic succession is “to achieve improved relations with the United States, which the DPRK regards as its only potential security guarantor, ironically.” In 10SHENYANG4 a similar redacted source told U.S. Consul Stephen Wickam that restoration of relations with the U.S. is an important component of North Korea’s 2012 development strategy. In 09SEOUL1171, the South Korean Unification Minister Hyun In-taek told an American diplomat that North Korea was looking for “one big deal” with the United States and “the recognition and respect of the rest of the world.” In 09BEIJING1761 Chinese Scholars urged the Untied States to present “a bold proposal to break the current deadlock” and even offered to act as a mediator if the U.S. wanted to pursue bilateral talks with North Korea.

With all this desire for normalization on the part of the DPRK is a break through on the horizon? Hardly. Even if last month’s shelling of Yoenpyong Island had not happened, these cables also reveal that North Korea thinks that it can best attain normalization with the U.S. and recognition from the rest of the world by either becoming a nuclear weapons state or continuing that process. This way it can either use its nuclear weapons programs to continue to extract concessions from the international community, or under the right circumstance trade them for “one big deal” with the U.S. that would give it recognition (if not respect), security guarantees, and an end to U.N. economic sanctions. The North Koreans have actually struck a similar deal with the U.S. before called the 1994 Agreed Framework. The problem with this agreement was that neither side believed from the beginning that the other side would keep their half of the bargain, which in the end turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. There can be no lasting deal of any kind until some modicum of trust exists. A Chinese official in 09BEIJING1634 told American diplomats that it is very hard for the DPRK to trust the United States since “the destruction of its nuclear capability was an irreversible step while decisions by the United States could be easily reversed.” The Americans likewise have a hard time trusting the North Koreans because of their history of unpredictable nuclear detonations, rocket tests, guerrilla attacks, and now shelling of civilian areas.

One step forward might be a formal end to the Korean War. As bizarre as it may seem, the Korean War is not over in the sense that no peace treaty has ever been signed. The reasons for this bizarre situation are somewhat akin to the continuing blockade of Cuba; there once was a justification for it, but it is gone. The U.S. would lose nothing of substance by attempting to negotiate a formal end to the war and it may even help build some trust between the two sides. Besides it seems bad form to try to force a country you are still at war with to give up its most powerful weapons.

There is no indication in Wikileaks that the U.S. is prepared to take such a bold step in its relations with North Korea, but neither are we completely out of ideas. 07SEOUL1576 reveals that the U.S. considered facilitating meetings between Korean-Americans and their relatives in the North who have been separated in many cases for over 60 years, a goodwill gesture that would probably be beyond reproach. The same cable also contains information that the U.S. considered attempting to arrange for Eric Clapton to play a show in North Korea after it learned that Kim Jong-il’s second son, Kim Jong-nam (no longer heir apparent) is a big fan of Clapton. Had this been tried, this would have undoubtedly been the most creative use of rock’n’roll in U.S. foreign policy since American soldiers blared “Welcome to the Jungle” into the Apostalic Nunciature in Panama City in an attempt to either drive Manuel Norieaga mad or to force him to surrender. (He surrendered first.) It is a shame that the U.S. apparently let the idea drop, because if there is one thing our relations with North Korea needs it is a Slow [and steady] hand.

David Fields is a crusty academic in training at the University of Wisconsin. He likes squash (both the game and the vegetable), has a taste for pipe smoke, and enjoys keeping a weather eye on North Korea.

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