Wrong on North Korea

Ivo H. Daalder
Ivo H. Daalder, President, Chicago Council on Global Affairs
Ivo H. Daalder Former Brookings Expert, President - Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO

July 13, 2006

The following opinion was originally posted at the America Abroad weblog on TPM Café. All past posts may be found at America Abroad – A Blog on Current Affairs on this website, or at TPM Café.

Josh asks whether Bush’s North Korea policy is a fraud. Of course it is. The policy, which was set at the outset of the administration and hasn’t changed much since, was based on two key assumptions – both exactly wrong.

The first assumption was that you must not negotiate with, or even talk to, bad (“evil”) actors like Kim Jong-Il. You can’t trust these people, and the commitments they make aren’t worth the paper they’re written on. These people cheat, so they’ll play you for a sucker if you think they’re ready to make a deal. Any move in the direction of negotiations or taking them seriously will be seen by the Kim Jong-Ils of the world as a confirmation that you’re weak and they’re strong. The fact that Clinton engaged the North directly for six-plus years merely strengthened the presumption that negotiations were the wrong way to go.

The second assumption was that North Korea was in such dire straights that it would take only a tad more isolation for the regime to collapse. This assumption reinforced the first, since engagement was believed to prop up a regime on the brink, while isolation would push it over the edge.

Both assumptions still guide U.S. policy today. The six party talks are designed to prevent the U.S. from engaging the North directly and convincing the other four parties that the North can’t be trusted to resolve outstanding issues through negotiations, leaving them no option but to increase its isolation and, hence, its collapse. (That’s what the diplomatic effort at the UN this past ten days has all been about – getting the others to sign on to further isolation the North.)

The problem, of course, is that these assumptions are flawed. Clinton proved that smart negotiations, and direct talks, can produce results. The Agreed Framework agreement of 1994, so despised by Bush, actually froze the North’s plutonium production program for six years. As a result, whereas North Korea produced material sufficient for making nuclear weapons before and after Clinton was president (i.e., when Bush father and son occupied the Oval Office), no material was produced during the time Clinton engaged Pyongyang directly. And whereas a willingness to talk to Kim Jong-Il directly produced a missile testing freeze, and significant movement toward an agreement that would have gotten the North out of the ballistic missile business altogether, Bush’s thumbing his nose at talks with the North led to a series of missile tests that undermined regional stability and ultimately could threaten the security of the United States and its allies. Far from being a sign of strength, the refusal to engage in direct talks with the North has made us less rather than more secure.

As for isolation leading to the North’s collapse, the problem is that whether to isolate the North or not is a matter for Seoul and Beijing to decide, not Washington. There’s little more we can do to isolate the North; we’re all sanctioned out. But there’s plenty Pyongyang’s neighbors can do to life there even more unbearable. Yet, while we may see the collapse of an evil regime like the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as an unquestioned blessing, neighboring countries that will have to live the consequences of its implosion have a decidedly different view of the matter. They don’t want to be responsible for the destitute millions that would come streaming across their borders – or have to provide the hundreds of billions of dollars necessary to turn things around in the North. Instead, their number one priority is to avoid the chaos that comes from collapse and disintegration – which is why basing a policy on the hope that China and the ROK will help bring about the North’s collapse is so naïve and wrong-headed.

So, yes, the Bush policy toward North Korea is a fraud. But don’t count on it being changed anytime soon.

Posted at TPM Café on July 13, 2006 — 11:19 PM Eastern Time

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