In our negotiations with North Korea it looks like the only use we have for carrots is as blunt instruments to beat the DPRK over the head with.
Today, in congressional testimony, the State Department’s Christopher Hill complained about North Korea’s foot-dragging in restarting the six-party talks about its nuclear program.
Richard Lawless, the top Asian guy at the Pentagon, appeared with Hill. In an attempt to show that we’re really angry and the DPRK had better get with the program, the DoD announced the following moves:
suspended virtually the only military cooperation between the U.S. and the DROK—a joint effort to recover the remains of American servicemen—on the flimsiest of pretexts
announced portentously that the Pentagon has “plans” in case the six-party talks fail.
The problem here is not just that this saber-rattling sounds pretty unconvincing.
The real problem is that we’re hostages to a confrontational policy with North Korea over its nuclear program—a policy that offers no way out of the Korean impasse because of our over-reliance on the logic, measures, and goals associated with the Bush administration’s beloved policy of regime change.
In other words, the shadow of Iraq hangs over our North Korean policy.
Not only Kim Jung-il but the whole world remembers how the United States parlayed an ostentatious fixation with Saddam’s purported weapons of mass destruction into an invasion that achieved its actual objective of regime change.
The United States believes that confronting North Korea over its nuclear programs deploys the most effective diplomatic weapons in America’s arsenal: accusation and delegitimization followed by escalation culminating in ultimatum, triumph, and regime change, all powered by unanswerable U.S. moral, diplomatic, and military ascendancy.
But that strategy is so 2003.
Non-proliferation is no longer the universally invincible wedge against our enemies and rallying point for our allies. Our failures in Iraq probably have a lot to do with that.
None of our allies except Japan accept our insistence that North Korea’s nuclear program is a pressing security crisis. And the Chinese—who expect to get a dose of American regime-change medicine some ways down the road—have an active interest in discouraging the view that the North Korean situation is so desperate it requires the East Asian states to toe Washington’s line.
Most of the front-line states in the Korean imbroglio see the nuclear program as an inevitable response by the North Koreans to U.S. regime-change pressures—a legitimate deterrent as well as a cynical bargaining tool.
And North Korea believes that the best way to forestall U.S. pressure—and obtain leverage to obtain the desperately needed economic aid that props up the regime—is to get some real nukes asap.
We are nowhere near having the diplomatic support needed for an escalating process of confrontation leading to that magic “or else” moment that makes North Korea’s protectors to step back and acquiesce to regime change.
At the same time, rapprochement and retreat do not appear to be options for the Bush administration, which has staked White House foreign policy credibility on non-proliferation and counter-proliferation, and its domestic standing on “fire of freedom” rhetoric.
So we’re having our Rumpelstiltskin moment, where we stamp our feet in frustrated fury while the rest of the world waits for us to crash through the floor.
The frustration of the Korea hands in Washington must be all-consuming. By any standard, North Korea should be the lowest-hanging fruit for America’s freedom fighters to pluck.
I’m not claiming to understand the inner workings of North Korean society, but I think that China and South Korea—the two states that border on the DPRK, for you geography-challenged folks—could bring down Kim Jung-il’s regime rather easily by opening their borders and encouraging a flood of refugees.
The South Koreans don’t want it, apparently because of the big costs and disruption of reunification —ranging from $2 to $3 trillion in the gold-plated scenario to $125 billion in the “diplomacy, politics, the free market, and world finance working together like a well-oiled machine” cut-rate proposal which, in the aftermath of the $300 billion and counting Iraq nationbuilding debacle, looks pathetically optimistic.
The Chinese don’t want it, presumably because South Korea and the United States could exploit the power vacuum more quickly and effectively than the PRC could, and the front-line boundary between the West and China would move from the 38th parallel to whatever buffer zone the Chinese would be able to secure near the Yalu.
So the Chinese and the South Koreans have a shared interest in the continued survival of the North Korean regime. They also share a desire for a program of economic growth and reform that would increase North Korea’s viability and turn it into a positive economic force in Northeast Asia, instead of an exasperating strategic burden whose only competitive exports are medium-range missiles and the international anxiety and aggravation provoked by its half-assed nuclear weapons program.
The main obstacle to that kind of reform is the under-siege mentality of the Kim Jung-il regime, which assumes, probably quite rightly, that the stresses, costs, and dislocations of economic reform would quickly destabilize the regime, especially if the United States actively exploited this opportunity to subvert the DPRK.
And that under siege mentality is reinforced—and justified—by American hyperventilating over the DPRK’s nuke program.
Interestingly, at Hill’s congressional appearance, he was pressed to accept bilateral talks with North Korea—the kind of one-on-one horsetrading as equals with Kim Jung-il that is the polar opposite of the dance of death for the North Korean pariah state that the U.S. is trying to choreograph through the six-party talks.
It’s time to acknowledge that the regime-change elixir is not what Northeast Asia needs right now.
In a realpolitik world, the United States would make a deal that would guarantee North Korean sovereignty and provide economic and political assistance for the odious Kim Jung-il regime to execute the reforms and market opening with Chinese and South Korean help that will make it into something other than an economic basket case.
The long-suffering people of North Korea would be denied the freedom and self-determination they crave, and have to endure a Chinese-style totalitarian/free market economy with an overlay of chaebol domination, but it would be better than what they have now.
Then, President Bush can have his Nixon-in-China moment. He can go to Pyongyong, and the two height-challenged hereditary monarchs can exchange the historic handshake that welcomes North Korea back into the world community.
I’d love to see it—but I’m not holding my breath.