WASHINGTON — In June 1994, as the United States and North Korea stepped back from the brink of war over the North’s nuclear weapons program, a moderate consensus in the U.S, South Korean, Japanese and Chinese governments applauded the Agreed Framework for averting a crisis through dialogue and negotiation.
Today, as hawks in the Bush administration resist any dialogue with Pyongyang over new revelations about another secret drive for these weapons, another so-called moderate consensus reminiscent of 1994 has emerged calling for continued dialogue and engagement as the best option. Unfortunately, engagement worked in 1994, but it is both ineffective and infeasible today. Indeed, the true “moderate” position if the North does not come clean on its uranium-enrichment activities is not engagement or a pre-emptive attack, but isolation.
The logic of engagement in 1994 re-played today is mistaken on three counts. First, it assumes that the U.S. can simply start over with North Korea and wind back the engagement clock, implicitly accepting that this instance of North Korean misbehavior is no different from others. On the contrary, Pyongyang’s uranium-enrichment activities have meaning far beyond a violation of a standing U.S.-North Korea bilateral arrangement.
Arguably all of the improvements in North-South relations, including the June 2000 summit, breakthroughs in Japan-North Korea relations in 2002 and the wave of engagement with the reclusive regime that spread across Europe in 2000-2001, were made possible by what was perceived to be the North’s good-faith intentions to comply with a major nonproliferation commitment with the U.S. in 1994. The subsequent diplomatic advances would not have been possible without the Agreed Framework. And now the North has shown it all to be a lie.
Second, engagement proponents assume the North’s blatant confession is a cleverly disguised attempt to “retail” its new threat and thus draw a reluctant Bush administration into negotiations. Maybe so, but even if such talks could result in a more comprehensive nonproliferation agreement to replace the Agreed Framework, what on earth would lead one to conclude that Pyongyang could be trusted to comply with it? North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s credibility in Washington is not at zero; it is less than zero.
Third, as in 1994, prosecuting a war to deal with this problem is too ugly to contemplate. Engagement advocates therefore conclude that their strategy is the “least bad” option. But to frame the choices today as war or engagement is a false dichotomy. If Kim chooses not to unilaterally make efforts at resolving international concerns about his new weapons program, then the U.S. alternative is isolation and “malign neglect” of the regime. This is a more viable option today vis-a-vis the North than it was in 1994.
A strategy of isolation or “malign neglect” would cut off economic assistance and political contact with North Korea until the regime either changed its behavior or collapsed of its own weight. It would also disrupt to the extent possible any attempts by the North to import or transfer weapons material for bomb-making purposes.
Augmenting this formal strategy of isolation would be more proactive humanitarian measures, including the continuation of food aid, designed to help and engage the North Korean people. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees should be allowed to establish refugee processing camps in neighboring countries around the Peninsula enabling a regularized procedure. Potentially a more significant watershed in this regard, a bill clearing the way for the U.S. to accept any North Korean who meets the definition of refugee and desires safe haven in the U.S. is making its way through the Congress. Should this pass, the U.S. would lead by example in preparing to facilitate passage out of the darkness that is North Korea to those people who have the courage to vote with their feet.
Wouldn’t such a strategy cause Kim Jong Il to lash out and undertake crash development of its nuclear programs? Such concerns were justifiably voiced in the 1994 crisis. But the North Korea faced by the U.S. in 1994 is different from that faced in 2002.
In the earlier period, “malign neglect” would have led to Pyongyang’s lashing out precisely because the regime had nothing to lose. Since then, Kim has won diplomatic ties with the EU, economic ties with South Korea and a potential normalization settlement with Japan, among other gains. If faced with the choice of cooperating on the nuclear program or facing total isolation, it has too much to lose by heading down the latter path.
Different times require different thinking. In 1994, engagement was the level-headed consensus policy option as any other alternative would have led prematurely to war. Today, engagement is no longer credible. And pre-emption is not worth the candle. If Kim chooses not to pick up the cooperation ball, the only true “moderate” option is isolation.
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