Opportunity and Danger

James E. Goodby
James E. Goodby Former Brookings Expert, Annenberg Distinguished Visiting Fellow - Hoover Institution

January 17, 2003

A time of danger can be a time of opportunity. The crisis in Korea provides a chance to move toward a settlement of the world’s last Cold War confrontation.

Otherwise the future will be like the past. If luck holds, there will be a series of dangerous but ultimately resolvable crises. If luck runs out, one of those crises will result in a massively destructive war.

Conventional diplomatic wisdom points negotiators toward first-step, easily achievable agreements, hoping that this will build momentum toward more serious understandings. The Clinton administration’s 1994 Agreed Framework was like this. It laid out a program for future U.S.-North Korean cooperation. But it was never realized. Is it realistic to think that a more far-reaching agreement could be achieved? A closer look at national interests in Northeast Asia suggests that it is.

North Korea has begun to introduce changes in the way its economy is run. This strongly suggests that a top priority for the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, is rebuilding the devastated economy.

South Korea has a new president, elected with the support of younger people. He intends to continue his predecessor’s program of engaging North Korea in the economic sphere, while promoting freedom of travel throughout the peninsula.

Russia and China are both interested in improving economic relations with the two Koreas. Serious efforts are under way to reopen rail lines through North Korea to South Korea. Japan started to move toward economic ties with North Korea. The process was interrupted when it was confirmed that Japanese citizens had been abducted and taken to North Korea during the 1970s. Getting all of them and their families back has become Japan’s deeply felt goal. Opening up North Korea’s closed society would help.

There is something to the theory that the outside world has taught North Korea to expect rewards for bad behavior. The other side of that coin is that North Korea has learned that it gets on America’s agenda only when it creates a crisis.

For that cycle to be broken, two things have to be done, and soon. A rollback in North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs is essential. Learning to live with them is not an option. It would mean that the dam that has held back a flood of new nuclear weapons states would have been broken, probably irrevocably.

Achieving the rollback and making it permanent almost certainly have to be in the context of a settlement that is broad and time-bound, not just a wish list for the future.

President George W. Bush would have his hands full dealing with both North Korea and Iraq. But the nature of the North Korean system means that Kim Jong Il makes the decisions.

Bush needs to have at his side a trusted adviser who could handle the Korean problem. Two advisers who could serve admirably would be former Secretary of State James Baker and former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft.