Choosing The Right Enemies

In his State of the Union address, President Bush took aim at what he called an “axis of evil”?countries like Iraq, Iran and North Korea together with their terrorist associates. He implied that the United States might take strong action against all parts of this global collection of unpalatable actors.

However, Mr. Bush is wrong to lump these countries and terrorist groups together. We will harm our security if we fail to appreciate the great differences among them.

This is particularly true of North Korea and its tyrannical ruler, Kim Jong Il. North Korea remains heavily armed and threatening, and largely as a result of its excessive military spending, its citizens are extremely poor. But for all its flaws, the North Korean regime is not like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. We can work with Kim Jong Il?provided that we are smart about how we do it.

Consider how much things improved in the years before Mr. Bush took office. Until 1994, North Korea appeared on its way to developing a sizable nuclear arsenal. In 1998, it fired a three-stage rocket over Japan, suggesting it might soon develop an intercontinental missile capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction against the United States. Not long ago, American intelligence officers considered Korea the world’s most dangerous flash point, with the likelihood that any outbreak of war would lead to thousands of American deaths and hundreds of thousands of Korean casualties.

By the end of 2000, the situation had improved on almost all fronts. In 1994, the Clinton administration worked out a deal for shutting down and monitoring North Korea’s major nuclear facilities. That “agreed framework,” which has held to this day, called for South Korea, Japan and the United States to provide North Korea with fuel oil to replace the energy that the nuclear reactors would have produced?and, eventually, to build North Korea new nuclear reactors with less capability for contributing to a nuclear weapons program.

More recently, the United States convinced North Korea to impose a moratorium on long-range missile testing in exchange for a lifting of most trade sanctions and an improvement in diplomatic contacts. That moratorium also continues to hold. And a process of détente began as well, including a meeting in 2000 between the leaders of the two Koreas.

North Korea’s support for terrorism has declined drastically in recent years; there is no evidence the regime actively supports major terrorist organizations. Even so, all is not well on the Korean peninsula. North Korea remains hypermilitarized; it still exports missiles and other arms, though in far smaller quantities than a decade ago; it may still be quietly working on its long-range missile program; it might even have a “basement bomb” project to develop nuclear arms. Its economy remains a shambles. And, since Mr. Bush took office and showed little support for the “sunshine policy” of South Korea’s president, Kim Dae Jung, toward the North, the process of détente has essentially been frozen.

What to do? The Bush administration resists the idea, preferred by some in the Clinton administration, of simply buying out North Korea’s missile programs. For this administration, that smacks of blackmail and could encourage extortionate behavior from Pyongyang. But the Bush administration has failed to offer a serious alternative to Mr. Clinton’s policy. Threatening rhetoric does not amount to a policy and may actually increase the chances of war on the peninsula.

Rather than merely buying out North Korea’s missile program, the United States and its allies should insist that North Korea accept an arms control regime that would scale back conventional weaponry on the peninsula. If North Korea were willing to begin economic reform, perhaps along a Chinese model, the United States, Japan and South Korea should commit to providing substantial economic assistance?not as bribery, but as genuine aid to help convert the North Korean economy.

What will not work is treating Kim Jong Il like Saddam Hussein or Mullah Omar. As bad as Mr. Kim may be, he has displayed some recognition that he needs to improve relations with the outside world. He can possibly be coaxed, but probably not bludgeoned. As he prepares for a trip to South Korea in less than two weeks, Mr. Bush needs to make sure that he wields both a carrot and a stick in his dealings with Pyongyang?a combination that has worked well in recent years.