Friday, May 13, 2005

Our Korean Conundrum

North Koreans Heart "the guy with the white moustache"—But Nobody Else Does

As John Bolton’s “friends” in Washington pointed out, he took his eye off the ball in the Iran nuclear talks while lobbying feverishly for the Secretary of State position and then grinding through the nomination process for Ambassador to the U.N. this year.

So who’s doing the good work of insulting and terrifying North Korea’s Kim Jung-il now that Bolton is trying to shrug off reports that he is a maniacal manipulator of intelligence, a loose cannon, and a sex fiend to boot?.

The New York Times dished out an a disturbing report of an impending North Korean nuclear test—with “viewing grandstands”—that seems to have begun its soufflé-like descent promptly after its initial alarmist purpose has been achieved.

The LA Times pitched in today with a particularly witless editorial calling for China to force North Korea to the negotiating table with oil and food sanctions.

A little perspective here:

Asking the Chinese to implement sanctions that they believe would be counter-productive and destabilizing is a non-starter.

And presenting sanctions, as the LA Times does, as a consensus position of what China should do to join the club of civilized nations is not just condescending. It’s wrong.

Of the six countries involved in the North Korea discussions—Russia, N. Korea, S. Korea, China, Japan, and the United States—at least four of the nations disagree with America’s confrontational approach.

The real reason why the North Korean situation appears so intractable is because of fanaticism, denial, and division—within the United States.

North Korea is the battleground upon which the doctrine of “counterproliferation” is being fought.

We don’t just do non-proliferation anymore.

Non-proliferation—the attempt to control the diffusion of weapons of mass destruction through international organizations—is just one element of a proliferation strategy whose cornerstone is counterproliferation—pre-emptive activity against proliferators by one uniquely wise and virtuous state…

…OK, I’ll stop the sarcasm.

In the words of the Heritage Foundation:

As a means of hindering proliferation, multilateral arms control has become too dependent on a treaty regime managed by cumbersome international bureaucracies…Augmenting the treaty regime and its institutions… necessarily depends on encouraging individual states to exercise their sovereign authority to control proliferation.

As Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, John Bolton strove to take point on North Korea as a proliferation issue that overrode conventional diplomatic concerns about other nations' sovereignty and stability, much to the dismay of Richard Armitage and the State Department realists.

Even with Bolton, who openly sabotaged Administration initiatives to negotiate with North Korea, pensioned off to the UN, North Korea is unlikely to believe that the United States has abandoned the concepts of counter-proliferation and pre-emption.

With the brickbats that North Korea—a charter member of the Axis of Evil—has had tossed at it by the Bush administration, it’s no surprise that they believe that America’s actual objective in North Korea is not modification of the regime’s behavior—abandoning its nuclear program—but regime change.

Given the tottery nature of the North Korean regime, “sanctions” looks a lot like regime change. Let’s climb back in the Wayback Machine to November 2004, courtesy of Jim Lobe:

On Saturday, right-wing Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, who claims to be on friendly terms with Bolton, told Fuji Television that Bolton wants to impose economic sanctions against North Korea, which, in the U.S. official's view, would lead to Kim's ouster "within one year."

No wonder the Chinese, the North Koreans, the South Koreans, and the Russians probably regard sanctions as an idiotic iteration of hardline demagoguery.

At the core of the counterproliferation strategy is the concept of “failed states”—states that have assumed rogue status, that are so tyrannical, unpredictable, and dangerous that America must reserve the right to take unilateral military action against them.

These are states that have sacrificed their right to have their sovereignty acknowledged, respected, and protected by other states and the international community.

China and Russia, in particular, are strongly resistant to American unilateralism and the “failed state” formula.

It’s important to these two countries, which are not exactly beacons of political and market freedom, that the United States not be allowed to unilaterally excommunicate enemies and rivals from the family of nations and use American military, economic, and diplomatic power in a overt campaign of destabilization.

At the bottom line, the sticking point of the North Korean crisis is America’s refusal to accept that the North Korean regime is legitimate and has a right to exist.

We refuse to negotiate with them directly because that would imply that we were ready to make representations and accept undertakings with a regime that we actually wish to destroy.

The closest we got appears to be in September of 2004, when the Bush administration—feeling election-year heat from John Kerry on the lack of progress in the North Korea talks—put a gag on Bolton and gave the State Department moderates a a chance to promote a negotiated approach over the objections of

“almost the entire Pentagon...an element within the State Department” led by Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton, members of Vice President Dick Cheney’s office, and a portion of the National Security Council led by senior director for counterproliferation Robert Joseph.

We offered to consider a “provisional” security guarantee linked to a WMD compliance and inspection schedule.

Not surprisingly, the initiative went nowhere, a victim of a lack of U.S. credibility and North Korean wishful thinking.

The North Koreans—no doubt remembering what happened when Saddam allowed the U.S. sanctions-and-inspections camel to stick its nose in the Iraq tent—found it too onerous and risky and let the proposal die, hoping they’d be dealing with John Kerry in a few months.

Kim Jung-il’s disappointment that John Kerry was not elected is understandable, since the Bush drive to override national sovereignty has grown even stronger in his second term.

The regime-change toothpaste is pretty much out of the tube as far as the Bush administration is concerned. The “democracy doctrine” legitimizes interference in the internal affairs of states that would previously have been considered WMD-and-terrorist-free sovereign nations in good standing, let alone archaic Communist dictatorships.

Given the U.S. government’s open intervention in the affairs of sovereign states in the name of democracy throughout Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia, it’s unlikely that any U.S. protestations today that the North Korean status quo is an acceptable basis for coexistence and state-to-state negotiations would be believed by any of the concerned parties.

At the bottom line, the right to violate the sovereignty of states that it considers beyond the pale is something the Bush administration is unlikely to surrender—perhaps because, in the absence of WMDs or terrorist links in Iraq, violation of subjective American criteria of acceptability is the only unassailable basis for our campaign of regime change that the Bush administration can cite.

It is the assertion of this self-granted right that has earned America the distrust of so many countries around the world—and dooms its attempts to bring North Korea to heel.

It must be said, there is a place that Bush and, yes, John Bolton and their regime-change policies are revered: North Korea.

Read this fascinating and moving post on interviews with North Korean refugees and their feelings about Chinese, South Koreans, Americans, and neo-cons.

(Among the émigrés) Every student genuinely admires George W. Bush firstly for his "axis of evil" comment, more recently for his comments describing Kim Jong-il as "dangerous" and the mention of concentration camps and for his vision of democracy. … To North Koreans human rights is the issue of most importance to them: more than the nuclear issue and even the removal of the present regime. Their belief is that Bush, Rice and "the guy with the white moustache" [Brendan says this is a reference to John Bolton] are the only ones who are doing anything about human rights.

But the disaster in Iraq should teach us that we can’t let our actions be guided by catering solely to the hopes and aspirations of émigrés, no matter how noble. We can’t blithely assume that pursuit of wrong-headed and counter-productive policies in the name of lofty aims will be without unacceptable collateral damage.

Accelerating the collapse of states we deem “failed” is a recipe for Armageddon, not nirvana.

To paraphrase the famous Vietnam era saying, We can’t destroy the world in order to save it.

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