Stronger U.S. Push Needed for N. Korea Reform

As National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley’s recent threatening words to North Korea over its nuclear program suggest, the future of negotiations to resolve this terrifying matter has never been bleaker.

North Korea appears unwilling to return to the six-party process involving the US, China, Japan, Russia, and both Koreas. And it may test a nuclear weapon soon. The Bush administration has no particularly fresh ideas for wooing Pyongyang back, and in fact understandably rejects the very notion of trying to woo such a regime. And now, Chinese officials are publicly criticizing the US approach to the talks as insufficiently flexible and diplomatic. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, knowing that he can continue to trade and receive aid from both China and South Korea, and knowing that the US military is tied down elsewhere with no good options for using force against his country in any event, is unlikely to feel much pressure to change paths.

This situation represents a major setback for American global interests. Whoever is to blame, clearly, the North Korean regime deserves the lion’s share of criticism, given its extremist ways and proliferation behavior. But the fact is that an economically destitute regime with a history of exporting virtually anything it can to make money now has up to eight nuclear weapons and is threatening to make more—and we have no promising strategy for how to deal with it.

What is needed to improve prospects here? A few guidelines are incontrovertible, as matters of either principle or of practical politics:

First, President Bush is right that North Korea cannot be rewarded for breaking three treaties and destabilizing Northeast Asia in its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Second, however, Mr. Bush is wrong to think that his current approach to the peninsula stands much of a chance of success. As long as China is openly criticizing US policy, and South Korea remains reluctant to get tough as well, the prospects for a diplomatic breakthrough are next to nil. Third, North Korea right now sees few incentives, positive or negative, to negotiate to give up its bombs. Fourth, while a North Korean nuclear arsenal might not be the end of the world, it is extremely dangerous. The fact that we are beginning to get used to its existence does not make it acceptable.

Together, these observations require a new strategy. While we support direct US-North Korea negotiations to complement the six-party process, we agree with the Bush administration that such talks would not themselves amount to a new strategy. Smooth diplomacy can help in situations like this, but when dealing with a ruthless regime, one needs to get the strategic fundamentals right. What’s needed is US leadership and a serious mix of carrots and sticks.

But how to offer carrots when North Korean provocations should not be rewarded with appeasement? And how to muster sticks when threatening force is not credible, and when key countries are unwilling to consider economic sanctions? One approach, to take a page out of Donald Rumsfeld’s playbook, is to recognize that when you have a seemingly unsolvable problem, you should enlarge it. The other important insight is to learn from the new US approach to Iran policy: Teaming with European allies is apparentlypersuading them to be willing to threaten sanctions if talks fail—provided the US shows sincere willingness to offer Iran benefits if the talks succeed. This is something that is noticeably missing in the approach to North Korea.

The core US strategy must be to try to push North Korea toward broad political, economic, and military reform. It is impossible to pursue such a strategy without being fully engaged, and being seen as fully engaged.

To the extent that North Korea verifiably and meaningfully reforms, as Vietnam and China have done even within communist systems, the US should promise to help it with its efforts. That requires not just denuclearization but conventional force reductions, more economic change, and progress on human rights. To the extent it does not, the US should have the agreement of Beijing and Seoul that tougher measures will ultimately be needed, and convince those countries to say so publicly. The premise behind Bush’s “bold approach” of April 2002—demand more, but be willing to give more—remains valid and would be supported by others in the region.

That is why, in addition to offering major trade and aid benefits if Mr. Kim accepts this type of process, the US also needs to make credible the threat of multilateral sanctions if he does not. But any hope the US has of getting China and South Korea to agree to such a strategy that forces North Korea to a stark choice over its future requires showing flexibility and a willingness to be helpful and generous if Pyongyang will play ball. America’s stated strategy and actions must be viewed as serious and sustained by all parties.

The Bush administration is executing a badly failing policy on North Korea. But there are ways to take the president’s strong principled views on the subject and use them to help construct a new strategy with much better prospects of success.