A Hard Line in the Sand With N. Korea

The United States, together with its key regional allies South Korea and Japan, needs a new North Korea policy. And we need it fast, well before completing what is now a probable war against Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

When entering office, the Bush team was right to want to revise the Clinton administration approach, which had its early successes but allowed North Korea to become too prone to demand large sums of money for not doing things like missile development that it should not have been doing anyway.

But the Bush policy has been too unthinkingly hard line from the start, and now the U.S. is in a dilemma.

Refusing to deal with the Kim Jong Il regime until it comes clean on all nuclear activities appears to be a failing strategy. Having just removed monitors and seals from its stock of waste fuel primarily produced before 1994, North Korea is now in a position to add to its arsenal of one or two bombs by quickly producing perhaps half a dozen more. A preemptive military strike, such as the one the Clinton team threatened against a related facility in 1994, is probably not feasible against the spent fuel because it would release large amounts of radioactivity.

The Bush administration is right that a hard-line policy is needed. But it is wrong to think that being hard line precludes negotiations.

The U.S. and its allies need the kind of tough, unflinching diplomatic strategy that Ronald Reagan used with the Soviet Union in the 1980s. That is the way to regain the upper hand with North Korea without simply encouraging a vicious cycle of additional extortionate demands from Pyongyang.

What should the tough U.S. demands involve? The Bush administration was onto something when it stated, early in 2001, that North Korea would need to reduce its threatening conventional force posture if it wished more aid and diplomatic relations with the U.S.

Although its nuclear and missile programs constitute the more immediate threat, North Korea’s conventional forces are unacceptably large and dangerous. They could produce tens of thousands of casualties in Seoul through artillery attack alone. They gobble up to 25% of North Korea’s feeble gross domestic product, meaning that any policy leaving them intact would preclude any hope for gradual economic reform.

As such, Seoul, Tokyo and Washington should propose a grand bargain: Pyongyang would come clean on its nuclear programs, shutting down and allowing on-site inspections of its uranium enrichment facilities and resealing unprocessed plutonium immediately. It would stop selling missiles abroad and ban all flight testing of longer-range missiles as well. It would let all Japanese kidnap victims and their families leave North Korea. And it would make large cuts in conventional forces as well as reductions in its forward-deployed military capabilities near the demilitarized zone.

In exchange, South Korea, Japan and the U.S. would provide substantial economic aid; for now, they would also keep food as well as fuel oil flowing on humanitarian grounds and as a show of good faith. Japan is eventually expected to provide up to $10 billion as a form of compensation for its colonization of North Korea, so much of the funding could come from Tokyo. We would sign a peace treaty, open up diplomatic relations and provide technical aid to accompany the economic aid. South Korea could make at least small conventional force cuts of its own.

But this offer would be hard line—Reaganesque—in an important way: It would essentially be all or nothing. North Korea could not get half the aid by making good only on nuclear and missile programs, for example, because such an approach would reaffirm its policy of blackmail. By adding conventional forces to the equation, we would be setting much of the agenda and forcing North Korea to make fundamental choices about the future nature of the regime and about economic reform.

This type of policy could work. But the North Koreans are far too ornery, obstinate and unimaginative to think of it on their own. And incoming South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun has other things to think about. That means Washington must act. Now.