Deal with North Korea

Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

January 15, 2003

With the North Korea nuclear crisis complicating Washington’s plans to invade Iraq this winter, President Bush’s international and domestic critics seem to be reveling in the administration’s new predicament.

Mr. Bush does, in fact, seem hard-pressed to explain why Iraq’s alleged nuclear program calls for a massive American invasion of a major Arab country, while North Korea’s overt nuclear program calls for “consultations with our friends.” Inaction in North Korea also makes the administration’s preemption doctrine, unveiled with such fanfare in the National Security Strategy just three months ago, look hollow and damages American credibility. And on the current policy course, the administration will likely find itself next month in the absurd situation of invading a country that is welcoming in U.N. weapons inspectors while doing little about a country that is kicking them out.

Mr. Bush is at least partly responsible for the mess in which he finds himself. While experts continue to debate whether North Korea is merely trying to negotiate a better economic and diplomatic deal with the United States and its allies or whether it is in fact pursuing weapons to stave off a feared invasion, it seems clear that Mr. Bush’s policies have pushed Pyongyang toward the latter option. Denouncing North Korea as a charter member of the “axis of evil,” proceeding with plans to invade one of the other members and explicitly announcing a doctrine of using military force to preempt proliferation threats understandably led the already-paranoid North Korean regime to take steps to ensure it was not next on the list. The timing of Pyongyang’s nuclear moves—while Washington is on the verge of war in the Gulf—is also no coincidence. All of this fuels the widely held perception—especially in Europe and among Mr. Bush’s anti-Iraq war domestic critics—that Mr. Bush has no one to blame but himself for the North Korea crisis.

In fact, the situation is more complicated. While Mr. Bush’s Iraq policies, reluctance to engage with the North and unnecessary rhetoric and doctrinal pronouncements no doubt contributed to the timing of the North Korea crisis, they cannot alone be blamed for a clash that may well have occurred even if Mr. Bush had not come to power. The current crisis started, after all, when Washington discovered that the North Koreans were secretly enriching uranium in violation of the 1994 nuclear agreement, and had been doing so since well before Mr. Bush took office. It was then that the United States, together with its regional and European allies, ended its part of that agreement—fuel oil transfers to the North—prompting Pyongyang to escalate further with the decision to restart its plutonium reprocessing. In short, while Mr. Bush’s hawkishness probably contributed to the timing of developments in North Korea, it is not certain that they could have been avoided even by better U.S. leadership.

More importantly, where current policy is concerned, it is misguided to argue that the North Korea crisis somehow means the United States—and other members of the U.N. Security Council—should never have resolved to deal with the Iraq problem in the first place. Even if it is true that North Korea is taking advantage of the administration’s focus on Iraq, it is hard to see how the world’s long-term nonproliferation goals would have been better served by ignoring Iraq’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions, as it had been doing for years. Nor is it the case that we would have much better options in North Korea today had our forces not been deploying to the Gulf—with North Korea already in possession of a massive land army poised to attack the South, artillery capable of leveling Seoul, missiles that can reach Japan and possibly one or two nuclear weapons, America’s military options would be highly limited, even with more forces at hand. Indeed, far from demonstrating that our attention on Iraq is misplaced, one of the lessons of looking at these two crises together is how important it is to deal with the Iraq problem now. As North Korea shows, once an adversary gets nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, it is largely too late.

What to do now? As tempting as it may be for America’s allies and Mr. Bush’s domestic critics to let the administration stew in its own juices, whatever perverse satisfaction that might bring would be easily outweighed by the enormous damage to global nonproliferation goals. Nor would it make any sense to announce now that we are backing off on the Iraq issue in order to somehow better deal with North Korea—sending the message that Washington is incapable of managing two crises at once, or that we are prepared to allow Kim Jong Il to determine our security policies in the Middle East.

There are many things that Mr. Bush will have to learn from the North Korea crisis, and the administration will probably ultimately have to back off of its refusal to offer some sort of economic and diplomatic deal with the North. But it is hard to argue that after months of painstakingly forging an international coalition on Iraq, giving up and allowing Saddam Hussein to develop nuclear weapons is the right response to potential nuclear dangers on the Korean peninsula.