North Korea: How Not to Handle a Tyrant


By Stan Crock There they go again. In a July 31 speech in Seoul, U.S. Undersecretary of State for Arms Control & International Security John Bolton called North Korean strongman Kim Jong Il one of the world's "tyrannical rogue-state leaders" and mused publicly how Kim lives in luxury while his people starve.

It reminds me of President Bush's statement in March, 2001, that Kim couldn't be trusted. Infatuated with what they consider candor, the Bush folks too often substitute rhetoric and name-calling for policy. O.K., so Kim is a tyrant and lives in luxury while his people starve. What's U.S. policy to neutralize the threat posed by Kim and stop North Koreans from starving?

I'm not going to argue with Bolton and Bush about their assessments. But their language is undiplomatic and counterproductive. Such name-calling often generates fistfights on playgrounds. But on the world stage, comments like these merely raise the temperature on the volatile Korean Peninsula, enflaming Pyongyang's paranoia about an imminent U.S. attack. And in the absence of a clear policy, such statements simply undermine America's national-security interests.

INCOHERENCE AS POLICY. Indeed, what passes for North Korea policy in Washington already has been botched. In pressing for talks with North Korea aimed at defusing tensions, the Bush team first insisted that Kim dismantle his nuclear programs before talks begin, then demanded that discussions take place only with South Korea, China, and Japan present.

That stance was a nonstarter. Indeed, the Bush team already is backing off its demands. It has met with just the North and China instead of all the parties. And it did so before any dismantling had taken place. Further discussions will include the other players, an Administration official said on July 31, but they will take place before any North Korean nukes are taken apart. The talks are aimed at discussing ways to achieve a verifiable and irreversible destruction of North Korea's nuclear program, the Administration now says.

Nothing wrong with that -- the goal makes perfect sense. My question: Why couldn't this have happened long ago? I think divisions within the White House are at least as much to blame for the delay as any intransigence from the Kim regime. The Bush Administration hasn't had a coherent policy from the get-go.

WORKABLE PLAN. Hoping for Pyongyang's collapse (just as previous Administrations waited for this Godot-like event), Bush & Co. balked early on at any negotiations. The delay proved costly. In the interim, the North had a free hand to walk away from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the 1994 Agreed Framework, which halted North Korea's reprocessing of spent fuel rods. If the North has started reprocessing the rods, as it claims, Pyongyang could have a half dozen or more nuclear bombs by yearend. And that's Kim's gambit now, figuring that nuclear weapons in hand will pressure the U.S. to provide food and other aid to starving North Koreans.

So what should the U.S. do now? U.S. Representative Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), a shrewd foreign-policy expert, recently led a bipartisan congressional delegation to North Korea and came away with some reasonable proposals to break the logjam. To satisfy the North's security concerns, Weldon suggests a one-year nonaggression pact between Washington and Pyongyang. Washington also would recognize Kim's regime and open a mission in Pyongyang.

In return, the North would renounce its nuclear-weapons program, permit inspections of its nuclear facilities, help develop a complete inventory of its weapons and materials, and rejoin the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. And in the final part of the first phase, the U.S., both Koreas, Japan, Russia, and China would hammer out an economic and security arrangement for the Korean Peninsula, with funding of up to $5 billion a year in aid for a decade.

After all this happens, the nonaggression pact would become permanent. To stop the North's weapons proliferation, it would be required to sign the Missile Technology Control Regime. The Stalinist state also would have to lay out a timetable for improving human rights and assume observer status with the Helsinki Commission, a U.S. agency that monitors democratic, economic, and human-rights developments. And in one of Weldon's pet projects, Congress would establish links with North Korea's parliament to develop programs on everything from agriculture to judicial systems to environmental cooperation.

CALMING PYONGYANG. This scheme has much to recommend it. It should allay North Korean fears of a U.S. attack and defang Kim's nukes. It would give the North Koreans the legitimacy they crave at little cost to the U.S. It also would demonstrate solidarity among North Korea's neighbors -- something the Bush Administration has sought with mixed results so far.

The success of the Weldon plan depends on key factors that are still unknowns: Does Pyongyang intend to develop nukes regardless of what the U.S. does? Can the North be integrated into the world economic community in this timeframe? Finally, can any deal be verified and enforced? After all, for years U.S. intelligence knew nothing about a highly enriched uranium program -- separate from the plutonium operation at Yongbyan -- that is considered a major breach of the 1994 Agreed Framework. As things stand now, the North could destroy that operation and its Yongbyan facility, and the U.S. still wouldn't know of a third, fourth, or fifth site where nuclear work might be ongoing.

Then again, no one will know the answers until the U.S., North Korea, and its neighbors sit down, talk, draft a proposal, and sign it. The sooner, the better, for everyone. In the meantime, Bush and his aides would do well to stop the name-calling. Crock covers national security and foreign affairs for BusinessWeek from Washington. Follow his views in Affairs of State twice a month, only on BusinessWeek Online


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