WORLD POLICY JOURNAL
Supping with the Devil
It was not an auspicious debut for the new secretary of state. Briefing Washington reporters on the contentious North Korea problem in the early weeks of George W. Bush’s presidency, Colin Powell noted that some “promising elements were left on the table” by the Clinton administration. The Bush team, the secretary asserted, planned “to engage with North Korea to pick up where President Clinton and his administration left off.”
The unfortunate Powell might as well have announced he was a pedophile. It took the enraged neocons surrounding Bush less than 24 hours to elicit a public retraction from the secretary. “There was some suggestion that imminent negotiations are about to begin—that is not the case,” an embarrassed Powell told reporters the following day. The administration would undertake a full review of relations with North Korea, with “policies unique to the [Bush] administration.” The Clinton approach with its “promising elements” was effectively derailed.
Three years later, the Bush administration is still struggling to fashion a coherent North Korea policy. Permutations of the debate within the administration have been endless. To talk with the North Koreans, or not? Talk, but not negotiate? With preconditions, or without? One-on-one with the North Koreans, or only in a multilateral setting? Engage or isolate, bargain or coerce? Deterrence or preemption? Regime change or security guarantees?
Until recently, the administration has seemed to expect that North Korea, cowed by America’s military muscle and by a president willing to employ that might, would unilaterally abandon its nuclear weapons program and, as a precondition for talks with the United States, accept a highly intrusive verification regime designed to preclude the possibility that in some corner of the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, North Korea’s official name), a clandestine nuclear weapons program might be under way. Not until October 2002, nearly midway into Bush’s term, did a senior U.S. official visit the North or actually get down to dealing substantively with Pyongyang. Even then, instructions for the American diplomat were so tightly drawn as to give him little scope for anything other than reading his talking points and making nonnegotiable demands on the North. “We have no intention to sit down and bargain,” a State Department spokesman declared three months later.
Pressed by allies increasingly discomforted by the lack of progress in dealing with the North, Bush last fall finally conceded that the United States would be prepared to discuss some sort of multilateral security agreement with Pyongyang, though the absence of detail suggested that the president had nothing more than a vague concept in mind. Nonetheless, Bush’s statement constituted an implicit acknowledgment that North Korea might believe it had genuine security concerns, and that the administration’s bombastic “axis of evil” rhetoric had not been particularly helpful. Opposition from within the administration to even this grudging concession, however, indicated that not everyone on the Bush team was prepared to abandon regime change as the administration’s bottom line.
In truth, as both books reviewed here document, U.S. policy toward North Korea over the past three years has been marked by confusion, indecision, mixed messages, and an absence of strategic thinking. About the only thing consistent in the administration’s North Korea policy has been its denials of inconsistency. “It’s a very constant policy,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer declared in January 2003.
North Korea’s dubious record has led many, inside the administration and out, to conclude that it is pointless even to negotiate with the North. Doing so, they argue, would merely reward Pyongyang for its provocations and encourage further misbehavior. For Washington hardliners, diplomacy holds a further drawback. Negotiations assume, even abet, the continued survival of the current regime in Pyongyang, a Stalinist dictatorship that has fully earned the world’s opprobrium. Promoting the continued existence of this clique of thugs would be immensely distasteful to the hawks in Washington, many of whom have openly called for regime change.
The internecine warfare between ideologues and moderates in the Bush administration has had a crippling impact on Washington’s ability to fashion a consistent and coherent policy toward the DPRK. Today, the most interesting and meaningful foreign policy debates in Washington are not between the Democrats and the Republicans, but those that pit hardliners in the White House and the Pentagon against a less hawkish State Department. These two camps have battled over policy toward China, Taiwan, North Korea, Iraq, and missile defense, among other issues.
One caught a glimpse of this ideological struggle last summer when former House Speaker Newt Gingrich published a scathing article accusing the State Department of incompetence and calling for a more muscular—i.e., military-oriented and Pentagon-dominated—foreign policy.1 Last year’s unsourced leaks speculating that Colin Powell would not serve in a second Bush administration, should there be one, were another reflection of this battle for the soul of the Bush presidency. Less publicly, this contest has played itself out in a series of mid-level personnel changes, especially in the State Department, where the hardliners have succeeded in easing out career nonproliferation and regional experts thought to be insufficiently hard-nosed toward the DPRK. The retirement last August of Charles Pritchard, the State Department’s special envoy for North Korea, who promoted a policy of dialogue and engagement with the North, was only the most publicized of a lengthy list of forced departures.
In no area has this ideological struggle had more unfortunate consequences than with respect to the contradictions between the administration’s repeated insistence that it will not tolerate a nuclear North Korea, and the startling absence of action to head off this possibility. Most especially since the discovery and North Korea’s admission of the existence of a clandestine uranium-based nuclear weapons program in October 2002, there has been a baffling disconnect between the very real dangers posed by an active North Korean weapons program and the absence of a concerted policy to counter these dangers. This lack of any sense of urgency is perhaps the most bewildering aspect of the Bush administration’s perplexing policy toward North Korea.
The Agreed Framework, the 1994 accord between North Korea and the United States that for eight years kept nuclear tensions on the peninsula in check, has collapsed—done in by the October 2002 revelations of a secret North Korean program. Since then, the North has taken a series of worrisome steps. It has expelled the international monitors who had been keeping watch on its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, and dismantled cameras and broken the seals at these installations. It has withdrawn from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and annulled its agreement with South Korea to keep the peninsula free of nuclear weapons. It has resumed operation of its one functioning nuclear reactor. It has reprocessed some or all of its spent fuel rods, a chemical procedure that, when complete, would provide the North with enough plutonium for five or six nuclear weapons. It has threatened to sell nuclear materials abroad.
Confronted with these serious challenges, the administration has responded with inaction and vague reassurances that time is on our side. As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has observed, we are so accustomed to the administration’s hyping of the Iraq threat that it is stunning to see officials playing down the North Korea challenge. Last summer, a report by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group warned that North Korea has the materials and technological know-how to produce an arsenal of more than 200 nuclear weapons by the end of the decade. And what would Pyongyang do with 200 nuclear bombs? Given its stark economic destitution, one does not have to be an alarmist to fear that, as Kristof puts it, North Korea might open up shop as “the world’s first nuclear Wal-Mart.”2
Variations on a Common Theme
O’Hanlon and Mochizuki argue that even if the current nuclear crisis can be contained, the North will still have “a broken economy, a highly threatening military posture near the DMZ, and the continued capability to develop nuclear weapons.” While agreeing that the nuclear issue is the most acute problem on the Korean peninsula today, they maintain that stopping North Ko-rae’s nuclear program is not enough. Unless the international community deals with the underlying economic and security conditions that have led Pyongyang down the nuclear path, the world is inevitably going to face other North Korea crises. Without genuine economic reform, North Korea’s “extortionate behavior” will persist.
Accordingly, they propose a “grand bargain” that in incremental steps would have the North verifiably shut down its nuclear program, cap its production of missiles and cease all ballistic missile exports, make large cuts in its conventional forces, accept reductions in its forward-deployed capabilities, and embrace economic reform. The centerpiece of their proposal is deep conventional arms reductions—a Northeast Asian version of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe—that would free up North Korean economic resources that could then be redirected into reform efforts. Since North Korea today spends 20 to 25 percent of its gross domestic product on defense—easily the highest level for any country on earth— economic restructuring will be impossible unless Pyongyang accepts steep arms cuts.
Such a “grand bargain” would not come cheaply. The United States and its regional partners would have to offer the DPRK concrete incentives to reform, a step Bush up to now has been reluctant to take. Washington would need to lift U.S. economic sanctions against the North, negotiate a nonaggression pact, sign a peace treaty, and open diplomatic relations with Pyongyang. Development aid, perhaps $2 billion a year for a decade, would be another component of this package, although most of the funds, the authors assume, would come from non-U.S. sources. None of these steps should beseen as bribes, they assert. Rather, they are “catalysts to reform,” or as O’Hanlon has written elsewhere, “a form of assisted suicide” for North Korea’s Stalinist practices.3
Crisis on the Korean Peninsula lays out an ambitious agenda. The authors wish not only to shut down North Korea’s weapons programs, but to influence its internal behavior as well. They accept the need for dealing with an odious regime in Pyongyang. Worse yet from the perspective of Washington hardliners, they abandon regime change as an explicit objective of U.S. policy, though, in a variation of an argument George W. Bush advanced with respect to Iraq, the cumulative impact of the changes they seek for North Korea would alter the fundamental nature of the regime—regime change after all, but without the costs of war.
The Cha/Kang volume is a rather different book. While both authors believe that engagement represents the only rational policy for the United States, they arrive at this conclusion along very different paths. In individually authored alternating chapters Cha and Kang offer differing assessments of the threat posed by the DPRK and the extent to which Pyongyang can be induced to join respectable international society. In the process, they explicitly take issue with each other and engage in something of a public debate on the merits, requirements, and prospects of engagement.
Cha is dubious that the North can be induced to walk back its nuclear program, but argues that a policy of engagement may be the only means of avoiding a situation where Pyongyang could view armed force as a “rational” course of action, even if military victory were impossible. North Korea understands the suicidal nature of a 1950style invasion across the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, he maintains. It could, nevertheless, logically conclude that the limited use of force represents a rational, even an optimal, choice. Fears about regime survival, imminent collapse, or inevitable absorption by the South could all prompt the North to lash out. If the status quo is sufficiently threatening, Cha writes, violence becomes rational as a means of inducing the United States to negotiate a new status quo more to Pyongyang’s liking. It is in the U.S. interest, therefore, to give the North a stake in the status quo, if Pyongyang makes this possible. A strategy based on isolation, threats, and coercion fails this test.
Kang, on the other hand, believes that the North does not wish to go nuclear; had it wanted to, Pyongyang would have done so long ago. But the DPRK does have genuine security concerns, inflamed by a U.S. administration fond of hyperbolic rhetoric and a National Security Strategy praising the efficacy of preemptive strikes. Unless Washington addresses these entirely understandable fears, North Korea will quite logically conclude that it has no alternative but to develop a nuclear deterrent sufficient to convince the United States that armed action against the North would be insupportably costly. U.S. pressure will exacerbate North Korean security fears, and being ordered to disarm by the world’s sole superpower will only increase the North’s incentives not to disarm. This essentially defensive explanation for Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program, needless to say, will not find many adherents in the Bush administration.
Despite their differences, all four of these authors believe engagement is needed, although Cha is notably less sanguine about the likelihood of success. All agree that the military option could trigger a catastrophe and should be seen only as a last resort. All agree that little in North Korea’s history suggests that coercion in the absence of incentives will force Pyongyang to buckle. Indeed, such an approach would only increase the likelihood of the North actually selling fissile materials to the highest bidder. All four authors also make the significant point that if engagement were to work, it would produce regime change, in effect if not in fact. Cha advances the additional argument that “today’s carrots are tomorrow’s most effective sticks.” That is, inducements give the North a stake in the status quo; the threat of their removal may then render the North less willing to jeopardize that status quo. Finally, all four of these scholars emphasize that should engagement fail, the United States would be far better situated to enlist other regional players in tightening the screws on Pyongyang.
A Question of Intent
Cha, best known as the scholar who coined the phrase “hawk engagement” as a policy option toward the DPRK, is far less convinced of all this.4 Hawk engagement might be thought of as engagement with teeth. Cha, for instance, sees the pursuit of missile defense as a logical complement to hawk engagement, rather than a needlessly provocative move that undercuts engagement. Unlike supporters of the “sunshine policy” associated with former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung (and unlike the other three authors here), Cha is skeptical of Pyongyang’s willingness to reform and integrate into the world community. For Cha, hawk engagement offers a means of testing the North’s true intentions. Unlike Kim’s sunshine policy, which emphasized patience and demonstrated a willingness to tolerate occasional backsliding by the North, hawk engagement is driven by a greater sense of urgency and is less tolerant of bad behavior from Pyongyang.
Under present circumstances, Cha’s hawk engagement requires that the North unilaterally and verifiably dismantle its uranium-based weapons program and return to the nuclear status quo as it existed prior to October 2002. Then negotiations involving quid pro quos could proceed. If Pyongyang refuses, then the rationale for engagement has disappeared, and the United States and its regional partners should move to a more confrontational policy of “malign neglect,” emphasizing isolation and containment. In other words, Cha contends that we have now entered into “the last round of diplomacy”; the North faces its final chance. So does engagement.
Such a prescription will find widespread support within the Bush administration. It assumes, however, that other powers would be prepared to work with the United States in tightening the noose around the North. Cha’s arguments that China and South Korea, the two key regional players, would be willing to join Washington in this strategy are not especially convincing.5 Cha’s recommendations also place a great burden on the administration’s untested Proliferation Security Initiative, the still embryonic plan to cordon off the North and interdict all shipments of missiles, weapons, fissile materials, narcotics, and other contraband. Doubts about the efficacy of this scheme abound, not least because a success rate of even 95 or 98 percent—and who reasonably could expect such success—would not provide ironclad assurances that the North could not somehow secretly transfer weapons of mass destruction to unsavory buyers.6
Rocky Relations with Seoul
Engagement as described in these books is not just a process but also a mindset. Some in the Bush administration appear to recognize that some sort of dialogue with the North is necessary, if for no other reason than to get other countries on board should diplomacy fail and a more forceful response become necessary. But convinced that diplomacy will be futile—or perhaps worried that it might actually succeed, and thereby give the North Korean regime a new lease on life—these officials have little incentive to fight for politically unpopular compromises that might lead to a workable agreement.
Granted, the idea of negotiating with North Korea is distasteful. Negotiations imply compromise and concessions. But as Victor Cha rightly points out, regimes such as the one in Pyongyang “should be regarded not as moral deviants to be reprimanded, but as security problems that need to be solved.” Equally to the point, as distasteful as the prospect of bargaining with the North might be, it remains the least bad of our alternatives. Viewed in this light, Pyongyang’s serious breach of the Agreed Framework, as early as 1997 and well before Bush entered the White House, does not so much invalidate the idea of a bargain with the North as it warns us against concluding agreements in the absence of rigorous verification procedures.
George W. Bush has the distinct advantage of enjoying far more political space in which to operate than did his predecessor. Suppose it had been Bill Clinton who responded with month after month of inactivity to North Korea’s assertions that it was producing enough plutonium to triple or quadruple its potential nuclear arsenal. Imagine the Republican outcry if, following a Pyongyang acknowledgment of a clandestine nuclear weapons program, Clinton had permitted another shipment of heavy fuel oil to the North, as the Agreed Framework required, and as Bush did. Would congressional Republicans have been so quiescent had it been Clinton who, having intercepted North Korean Scud missiles en route to Yemen, then released the intercepted ship and permitted delivery of the missiles? To the contrary, each of these actions would have drawn outraged cries of protest and accusations of gross incompetence.
Of one thing we may be certain: further delay and indecision are dangerous. Contrary to what the administration has implied, time is not on our side. Shortly before the initiation of hostilities in Iraq last year, the head of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency warned that the North’s pursuit of a nuclear arsenal represented “the most serious challenge to U.S. regional interests in a generation.” Former Secretary of Defense William Perry wrote last summer that “if it keeps on its present course, North Korea will probably have six to eight nuclear weapons by the end of the year…and may have begun deployment.”7 As Cha and Kang write, “Pyongyang is the world’s worst nightmare.” At some point, in some fashion, the administration is going to have to decide whether it is prepared to live with a dictatorial but nonnuclear North Korea, or whether it will accept nothing less than the total collapse of the communist regime in Pyongyang.
Can we have any confidence that we can negotiate with the North? Sadly, no. It is entirely possible that Pyongyang has already made the decision that, no matter the price, it needs a nuclear deterrent. But as all four of these authors argue, North Korea has shown itself to be a rational, pragmatic power. It knows that nuclear weapons will not solve its most serious problem: the collapse of the North Korean economy. To the contrary, the development of a nuclear arsenal will only increase the isolation that will accelerate this economic collapse. The leadership in Pyongyang presumably understands this. So we are left with the hope that at the end of the day, North Korea will act in its own best interests. Which will be ours as well.
—January 5, 2004
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