N. Korea: Who’s to blame?

by Ralph Cossa

SEOUL — “It’s all Bush’s fault!” “No, it’s all Clinton’s fault!” Has anyone engaged in this increasingly counterproductive debate over who should be blamed for North Korea’s nuclear test ever stopped to consider that it might actually be Kim Jong Il’s fault? . . . and that North Korean’s “Dear Leader” is sitting back laughing at the internecine warfare that currently passes for a foreign-policy debate in the United States.

Clinton did all he could and enjoyed some success; the Agreed Framework did freeze Pyongyang’s known plutonium assets for a significant period of time. Otherwise, North Korea could have stockpiled perhaps 10 times as much plutonium. The evidence is also overwhelming, however, that North Korea was already exploring a uranium-based nuclear option, even while conducting love-ins with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and South Korean President Kim Dae Jung during their historic 2000 visits to Pyongyang.

Bush was also right in approaching the problem multilaterally; the six-party talks put Seoul firmly at the table (righting an Agreed Framework wrong). Strictly bilateral talks would have facilitated Pyongyang’s “divide-and-conquer” approach, aimed at dividing wedges between the various players by making different promises (or threats) to each.

Washington is prepared to talk bilaterally with Pyongyang, but only “in the context of the six-party process,” further explaining that in the context “doesn’t mean in the room, it doesn’t mean in the building, it just means in the context.” All Pyongyang needs to do to get a bilateral meeting is to promise to return to the six-party talks without preconditions, something the entire international community has urged it repeatedly to do.

It is Pyongyang that consistently refuses to meet with the U.S., either bilaterally or multilaterally, until Washington ends its “hostile attitude.” The “proof” demanded by Pyongyang that this has been done has varied, ranging from lifting all financial sanctions (its current demand) to a bilateral peace treaty and withdrawal of all U.S. forces from the Peninsula, always with payment in advance.

Pyongyang’s behavior clearly indicates that Kim Jong Il is convinced that having nuclear weapons is essential to his survival and that the benefits to be gained outweigh current or potential consequences.

There are at least four main reasons why. One was the failure of the international community — despite the initial efforts of the Clinton administration (and Tokyo) — to effectively respond to the 1998 Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests. When discussing nuclear matters, North Koreans invariably make reference to Pakistan and how its “international status” was elevated once it became a nuclear-weapons state.

Even before this, Pyongyang was witnessing the collapse of the Soviet Union, accompanied by caveats from both Moscow and Beijing as to the extent their respective “friendship” treaties with Pyongyang assured the North of military support. The loss of these formerly reliable allies was sobering. Combine this with Pyongyang’s natural juche (self-reliance) tendencies, and another clear motivation emerges.

Bush’s 2002 ill-conceived “axis of evil” speech didn’t help. Nor did the even more ill-conceived invasion and subsequent quagmire in Iraq. If fear of attack possibly accelerated a nuclear-weapons program then, today it’s the lack of fear of attack that has really emboldened Pyongyang. In 2003, Kim reportedly went into hiding for several months when Baghdad rapidly fell; he sees little need to duck for cover these days.

This leads to another primary motivating factor: the lack of serious or sustained consequences. When Pyongyang first declared itself a nuclear-weapons state in Feb. 2005, South Korea and China, among others, asserted that a nuclear North Korea would not be tolerated: South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun promised that it would not be “business as usual” until Pyongyang gave up its nuclear ambitions. He was true to his word. It’s actually been “business better than ever” — North-South trade increased by 50 percent last year. Today, hard currency continues to flow into the North via the South’s Kumgang tourism project and the Kaesong industrial zone.

We have run out of good options. While some have suggested a special envoy, like the mission by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter in June 1994 (which the Clinton administration tried to discourage, even though it ended up saving the day), it is doubtful Kim will pay attention to new proposals (or honor any that he might eventually sign), until he is convinced that pursuing nuclear weapons decreases rather than increases the prospects for regime survival. Business better than ever is not going to bring this about.

In the absence of good options, the “least worst” option is to pursue a clearly defined, credible, sustained containment policy aimed at ensuring that whatever nuclear capability exists in North Korea remains in North Korea, while exerting firm pressure on Pyongyang, aimed at bringing about either a change of heart or an eventual change of regime from within. A round of six minus one talks should be called now to start defining and implementing this policy.