It’s Your Move, President Bush

President Clinton’s canceled visit to North Korea may be a lost opportunity or a wise move. Only history will judge. But as a result of that move and the election of a new US Administration, questions remain about the future of US relations with North Korea and, more generally, whether rapprochement with Pyongyang will move forward or stall.

The cancellation of President Clinton’s prospective trip is a disappointment to many, particularly Chairman Kim Jong Il and President Kim Dae Jung. The handling—or mishandling—of this episode is the result, in part, of unanticipated circumstances. The events after the US presidential election made it difficult to consult quickly with a prospective new Administration. But this episode also reflects the Administration’s own inability to manage a politically controversial initiative.

From the moment it made public a possible Clinton trip to Pyongyang, the Administration should have known it would be in for a bumpy ride and acted accordingly. But it mishandled both substance and public relations in a series of mistakes. Secretary Albright’s trip to Pyongyang was a public relations disaster, particularly her attendance at a mass rally with Chairman Kim which was widely reported in negative terms. Talks on North Korea’s threatening missile program made progress but that story was overshadowed by the negative reporting and Albright’s own inability to communicate substance. After the visit, rather than continuing contacts at a high-level, the Administration followed up with a predictably inconclusive, low-level meeting on missiles between US and North Korean officials. Last but not least, Albright held a dinner at her home with American experts to discuss a Clinton trip—also widely reported—at which many said he should not go. All of these events gave the impression of an Administration rushing recklessly into a trip and agreement with North Korea.

Whether the Bush Administration will pick up where Clinton left off is unclear. Accepted wisdom has been it will adopt a very similar approach, trying to improve relations with the North while holding open the possibility of something worse if that effort fails. This may prove to be true but only after a “shakedown” period to review policy and to arrive at some consensus. The views of allies—South Korea and Japan—will certainly be important and they can be counted on to try to keep the new Administration on the present course. But there are likely to be differences among new key office holders, particularly on North Korea. There has been a widespread, potentially dangerous notion among Republicans that Clinton has not bee “tough enough” on the North. In short, the result of any policy review is by no means guaranteed. A new Administration will always look for new wrinkles so it can distinguish itself from the “failed policies” of the past.

One possible outcome will be the same overall strategy towards Pyongyang implemented through new tactical initiatives. For example, many Republicans think the United States should be seeking to “change” North Korea’s political and economic system, to make it economy more open and its government less repressive. That view argues for engagement with new strings attached, such as continuing to provide food aid but with new conditions attached to stimulate domestic reform. There is certainly a strong case to be made for changing the North Korean system. But this new tactic may be viewed by the North as a basic change in strategy and could have very negative consequences.

Another step is renegotiating the 1994 US-North Korea Agreed Framework. That agreement provides the North with two nuclear reactors, largely paid for by South Korea and Japan, in return for ending its nuclear weapons program. That project is far behind schedule. Also, critics believe the North will have difficulty operating two modern nuclear plants. They think we should seek to substitute conventional power plants for the nuclear plants. Such plants would be more readily available, make more economic sense for Pyongyang and avoid giving the North anything “nuclear.” Once again, this may seem logical but could be viewed by North Korea as a change in strategy, not tactics.

Whether the Bush Administration likes it or not, given the history of vocal Republican opposition to Clinton’s policy, it is viewed by the North Koreans and others in the region as unsympathetic to improved relations with Pyongyang. This does not mean Bush appointees should bend over backwards to accommodate North Korean concerns or those of our allies. But it does mean the Administration, before moving in new directions, would do well to build up a certain amount of credibility first. Closing the nearly finished Clinton missile deal would be a significant step in that direction.

Even here, the Administration will have to be careful not to become a prisoner of their own rhetoric. One Republican criticism of the 1994 agreement was it did not prevent the North from pursuing a covert nuclear weapons program. While that charge is grossly exaggerated, in closing a missile deal, this Administration may confront a similar problem. If press reports are correct, the unfinished Clinton missile deal may freeze and eventually dismantle all medium and long-range North Korean missiles, including the Nodong missile which threatens Japan. Since those missiles are fired from mobile launchers, verifying such an agreement will require intrusive, on-site inspections. How far those inspections should go will be a difficult question to answer and one the new Administration will have to carefully consider.

Above all, the Administration will have to recognize the fragility of the rapprochement process now underway on the peninsula. In the South, President Kim’s sunshine policy is threatened by the lack of perceived progress with the North, as if ending almost five decades of hostility would take only months. Domestic political and economic problems are also undermining his leadership. As for Pyongyang, we assume Chairman Kim is following some well-mapped out grand strategy. But he too may be feeling his way, concerned about skeptics at home and the threat posed to his continued rule by opening up to the outside world. Moreover, if he were to pass from the scene, it is unclear what would follow.

These circumstances present the new US Administration with both opportunity and danger. The opportunity is the US can play an active, influential and positive role in trying to shape a transition away from Cold War confrontation to a more peaceful, stable Korean peninsula. The danger is that it will become a prisoner of its own rhetoric and, in so doing, will help abort that process with negative consequences not only for American interests in the region, but also for our close allies, South Korea and Japan.