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Nine months in the making, revision of a now admittedly flawed policy toward North Korea is an important step in the right direction in dealing with a problem where there is no good option. But there is a troubling gap in logic between former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry’s sagacious assessment (see “U.S./North Korea: Choosing paths to peace,” Oct. 23) and his modest mid-course policy corrections.

Perry conducted his review admirably, with great acumen and in a spirit of bipartisanship (although to say that “President [Bill] Clinton decided to establish an outside review of our entire policy toward North Korea” is wrong. Clinton had no choice: The review and the appointment of a high-level envoy to lead it was not just called for, but legislatively mandated. Congress should be credited for its wisdom in demanding a rethinking of the policy and adult supervision — a special envoy — to conduct it.

Yet four years after the 1994 “Agreed Framework” with North Korea, which froze Pyongyang’s known nuclear-weapons program, the security situation on the Korean Peninsula deteriorated significantly. This was dramatized when North Korea test-fired a Taepodong intermediate-range ballistic missile over Japan on Aug. 31, 1998. Amid suspicions that it was continuing a covert quest for nuclear weapons, North Korea had in fact been busy building new ballistic missiles of increasing range. Worse, this devotion of scarce resources to weapons of mass destruction occurred while 1 million or more of its citizens were quietly starving to death.

Before the review, U.S. policy did not begin to adequately address these deepening security concerns. The policy had lapsed into one of managing the implementation of the nuclear deal plus empty “food-for-meetings” diplomatic processes — “four-party” talks in which the United States committed food aid to famine-ridden North Korea in exchange for Pyongyang’s attendance at result-free meetings (where the shape of the table was avidly discussed). This allowed the administration to camouflage lack of substance with empty diplomatic processes; but reality caught up with it.

Thus Perry rightly says, “We judged the status quo to be unsustainable.” Another of his sound conclusions is that, despite profound economic crisis, there is no evidence that the loathsome regime in Pyongyang is approaching collapse, and we must deal with it as it is. Also on target is Perry’s proposition that no U.S. policy can succeed “unless it is shared by our allies in the region, South Korea and Japan.” Perhaps the most important accomplishment of Perry’s effort was qualitatively enhancing U.S.-South Korean-Japanese policy coordination. This unprecedented trilateral alignment is no mean feat, nor will it be sustained easily.

Yet the strategy he recommends astonishingly ignores the very reason such coordination was possible: Having an eminent senior figure over the bureaucracy and reporting directly to the president and the secretary of state makes a difference. The Korean Peninsula is the one flash point in the world where war could start with less than 24 hours warning, threatening the lives of tens of thousands Americans and hundreds of thousands of Koreans. Perry’s review demonstrates that managing the bureaucratic complexities, maintaining credibility with Congress and gaining the confidence of our allies on Korea policy requires a person of such stature. Yet he departs with no comparable replacement.

Perry rejects a “buyout” of North Korea as unsatisfactory: “It would encourage proliferators in blackmail.” Perhaps. But what does he think U.S. policy has been for the past five years? North Korea has received $750 million in aid since 1995, becoming the largest recipient of U.S. aid in East Asia. Have North Koreans received food aid instead of starving Sudanese or Somalis because of their intrinsic worth or because food is offered as alms every time Pyongyang creates a mini-crisis?

The doyen of realism, the late Hans Morgenthau, defined the core tools of foreign policy as logic, bribes and threats. The issue is less whether a buyout is repugnant than whether we are getting our money’s worth, and whether business is being conducted admirably and in good faith. The problem is that we have not been buying, but only renting, the North Korean threat. While the option of pre-emptive military action may appear a tempting alternative, as a practical matter there are considerations that make it problematic at best: inadequate knowledge of where targets are, questionable ability to penetrate deep underground sites and, above all, the willingness of our Korean allies, who would bear most of the burden if the result was a North Korean military response.

Moreover, it is not evident that the new policy is, as advertised, either “comprehensive or integrated.” It claims to offer Pyongyang a choice: a path of cooperation or one of containment; full normalization of relations, if North Korea dismantles Rodong missiles, halts exports and stops development of Taepodong missiles. But Pyongyang’s missile program, which unlike its nuclear efforts violates no agreement or international law, is viewed as key to its defense. There may be a price for which the North Koreans would sell the family jewels, but it would be a lot higher than the honor of having an American Embassy and a McDonalds in Pyongyang. Normalization of relations is all Clinton has on the table — and a good chunk of U.S. sanctions have already been lifted in exchange for the temporary missile-launch moratorium.

In the end, the result of the policy review is essentially two new sets of diplomatic negotiations: new missile talks and a second planned forum dealing with suspected nuclear activities. Neither has much prospect of success. If we were serious, the best way to clarify nuclear suspicions would be to accelerate the implementation of a nuclear deal — something Pyongyang says it wants. Under the Agreed Framework, Pyongyang must allow the International Atomic Energy Agency full access to determine its nuclear history (how much plutonium it has) and be judged in compliance with its Non-Proliferation Treaty commitments before key nuclear-reactor components are delivered.

Unfortunately, past behavior suggests that Pyongyang is likely to use two new sets of meetings to extort goodies, creating mini-crises along the way, and as we have seen, bad behavior would continue to be rewarded. A new policy needs a bigger carrot and a bigger stick, as well as a willingness not to threaten North Korea, but to apply the old British tactic of masterly inactivity, politely walking away when Pyongyang starts its predictable game of extortion. In short, the danger is that when the dust settles, the review will have produced a new way to muddle through — say, for example, until Jan. 21, 2001 — rather than forcing the choices Perry intended.

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