WikiLeaks puts the government through a full body scanner to reveal many dirty secrets. U.S. officials, not surprisingly, have responded with anger. They don't want their "junk" exposed or touched. No one, from emperors to excursionists, likes to be naked in public. And the latest revelations are the most intrusive yet. It's one thing when WikiLeaks exposes the lies of the U.S. government in Afghanistan or Iraq. But with this Sunday's release of 251,287 U.S. embassy cables, what the website calls "the largest set of confidential documents ever to be released into the public domain," perhaps the transparency fundamentalists have gone too far.
To explain why, let's first go to Northeast Asia where the North Korean government has indulged in its own form of transparency by revealing its uranium enrichment facility to visiting U.S. guests. At the same time, North Korea very clearly announced its objection to South Korean military exercises conducted in the area around the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the disputed maritime boundary between the two countries. When South Korea went ahead with those drills, including live artillery fire, North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong Island near the NLL, killing two civilians and two soldiers. To be sure, this was a disproportionate response. But North Korea's response wasn't entirely unexpected.
Nevertheless, speculation abounds concerning the motives behind North Korea's attack. According to the pundits, Pyongyang wanted to get back at Seoul for holding the G20 summit and stealing all the headlines. Or, it wanted to strengthen the hand of Kim Jong-eun, the youngest son of leader Kim Jong-il and the designated successor. Or, it wanted to jolt the United States out of its policy of "strategic patience." Any of the above might be true. Some day, should it have a go at the North Korean archives, WikiLeaks might provide a full answer. In the interim, it seems that North Korea simply followed through on its stated intention to retaliate against South Korea's military exercises.
South Korea and the United States have gone ahead with military exercises in the same area. The United States sent over an aircraft carrier loaded with 75 aircraft and 6,000 sailors that, along with South Korean forces, have been conducting military exercises near this disputed maritime border. This isn't just waving the big stick of deterrence. It's inserting the stick directly into the hornet's nest. When the hornets buzz and sting, the stick wielder bears a portion of the responsibility.
Even proponents of a harder-line stance admit that this isn't much of a strategy. "The only conceivable (but also useless) reply is tough talk and a show of military power," writes North Korea expert Andrei Lankov. "This is also somewhat dangerous since it will increase the likelihood of incidental clashes on the border. But one has to understand: the government has to show that it is doing something when actually nothing can be done."
The South Korean government is indeed in a tight position. The Lee Myung-bak administration was elected on a conservative platform of talking and acting tougher toward North Korea. It has largely followed through on this agenda. But hardliners in the South want the Lee administration to strike back against North Korea. It's truly a tough line to toe -- acting tough and not triggering a second Korean War. Lee "should shut out the voices that would decry 'rewarding bad behavior' or 'appeasing North Korea' by seeking further engagement now," writes Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Peter Certo in the Focal Points blog. Fortunately, South Korea backed away at the last minute from its pledge to repeat its live ammunition exercise in the very same location that triggered North Korea's disproportionate response.
The United States is supporting South Korea and pressuring China to restrain its erstwhile ally. Neither of these strategies is particularly effective. By sending an aircraft carrier into the disputed waters, the United States angers not only North Korea but China as well. And even if China were disposed to rein in its ally -- and there are lots of reasons why China won't do anything to seriously destabilize the current government in Pyongyang -- it doesn't have as much influence as Washington believes (and wants) it to have. North Korea is the Israel of Northeast Asia. It acts according to its own national security imperatives and listens to its big brother ally only when the advice confirms its own assumptions.
Instead, the United States should sit down with China and North Korea for some immediate, secret discussions to ratchet down the tensions. They should be immediate because the risk of war is very high. And they should be secret because the negotiators need the time and space to discuss sensitive details and work out some kind of understanding, far from the prying eyes of journalists, the political opposition, and an easily outraged public.
Which brings us back to WikiLeaks. It's one thing when leaked documents complicate the execution of war. It's quite another when they complicate the execution of diplomacy. The current trove of material reveals negative comments by Saudi Arabia about Pakistani leader Asif Ali Zardari and by Israel about Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan (for more tidbits, see FPIF contributor Michael Busch's analysis in Focal Points). These sentiments might be true, but diplomacy is all about saying one thing and believing another -- all for the purposes of getting to yes. Like Vegas, what happens in diplomacy sometimes should just stay in diplomacy.
You might object that WikiLeaks is just turbo-charged journalism. But journalists are careful to assess leaks for their likely veracity and then place the revealed information in a larger context. WikiLeaks bypasses the intermediaries and performs a big data dump, the raw and the cooked all mixed together. Some of the material simply confirms publicly what governments believe privately. For instance, the information in WikiLeaks about North Korean missile sales to Iran suggests that the long-standing commercial relationship between the two countries -- North Korea has been selling Iran missiles since the late 1980s -- has been upgraded technologically.
But this is data, not diplomacy. More troubling are the revelations about China's doubts concerning its North Korean neighbor. It's not the doubts themselves so much as the airing of them in U.S. cables that might complicate any diplomatic efforts to defuse the current standoff. Worse would be, in some future WikiLeaks cache, the exposing of secret negotiations with North Korea to prepare a comprehensive deal. It's hard enough to keep journalists at arm's length in order to conclude negotiations like the Oslo Accords or the denuclearization negotiations with Libya, both of which required utmost secrecy and delicacy. Now governments have to worry about conducting diplomacy while looking over their shoulders for hacktivists who have raised transparency to the level of dogma.
Civic activists pursue "sunshine laws" to expose backroom deals and corrupting collusion. WikiLeaks takes the sunshine law into its own hands in order to expose the shadowy corners of foreign policy. The result is always fascinating, often illuminating, and sometimes politically useful. But there are limits. As those who suffer from skin cancer can tell you, too much sunlight can also be deadly.