Does George W. Bush actually believe his own foreign-policy pronouncements? A year ago he made North Korea a charter member of the “axis of evil” and vowed not to “permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.” The National Security Strategy he issued last September warned that the United States would strike preemptively to make good on that pledge. Bush told Bob Woodward that he “loathed” Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s “dear leader.” On Jan. 3, Bush added that he had “no heart for somebody who starves his folks.”
All this tough talk would make you think Bush would be putting Pyongyang in his gun sights after it decided last month to restart its production of plutonium. But he isn’t. Instead, he and his advisers are counseling patience, dismissing preemption and trumpeting the virtues of working with North Korea’s neighbors. “Don’t be quite so breathless,” Colin Powell said, dismissing an interviewer who wondered why the administration did no more than express “disappointment” at Pyongyang’s decision to violate three major international agreements. “This is not a military showdown,” Bush said, “this is a diplomatic showdown.”
Even more surprising than the yawning gap between the administration’s rhetoric and its non-deeds is the stunning reversal of the punditocracy’s self-described hawks. Usually quick to bang the drums of war, many now argue for giving peace a chance. Charles Krauthammer applauds the White House for playing down the North Korean threat. “For now, there is little the administration can do,” he writes. “No point, therefore, in advertising our helplessness.” William Safire asserts that it’s China’s responsibility, not ours, to keep North Korea from going nuclear. For good measure, he proposes withdrawing the 37,000 American troops that have kept the peace on the Korean peninsula for half a century. And The Wall Street Journal’s Karen Elliott House laments, “There are no good options left for dealing with a nuclear North Korea.”
This counsel of despair rings hollow, however, when compared with what these same pundits (and many Republican officials) urged during the last North Korean nuclear crisis eight years ago. Then, as now, Pyongyang was close to reprocessing spent nuclear fuel into plutonium. It was also working feverishly to complete construction of two larger reactors that could produce enough nuclear material to build tens of weapons a year. But unlike his successor, President Clinton actively sought to halt these nuclear efforts. He succeeded. Pyongyang agreed to freeze its plutonium-production program in return for shipments of fuel oil and help in building proliferation-resistant nuclear reactors.
Hawks denounced the 1994 Agreed Framework as appeasement. They wanted war and disparaged diplomacy. “Peace in Our Time” was how one of Krauthammer’s many columns at the time was headlined. Safire suggested that Clinton “be prepared to crush a vaunted million-man army in Asia.” House wrote, “America faces a clear choice between confrontation and capitulation,” and recommended that Washington reject Clinton’s embrace of appeasement and strike first instead.
What explains the hawks’ pugnacity then and timidity now? They say it’s because North Korea now has nuclear weapons. “We hawks,” House writes, “believe it or not, understand the difference between using military force to preclude a future nuclear conflict and initiating military action that might spark one.” So war is not an option. North Korea with its one or possibly two nuclear weapons has deterred the United States. Whether Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal stabilizes or grows larger makes no difference to them. “Yes, they have had these couple of nuclear weapons for many years,” Powell said, “and if they have a few more, they have a few more, and they could have them for many years.”
Krauthammer goes even further. “But even if nukes were not a consideration, we would be deterred by North Korea’s conventional military capacity,” he wrote, which could destroy Seoul before America could destroy the regime in Pyongyang. “North Korea may already have passed the threshold to invulnerability from American attack,” Krauthammer added. This from the man who otherwise trumpets “the unipolar era” of unprecedented American dominance—a Thucydidean world in which the strong does as it wishes and the weak suffer as they must.
But these arguments don’t hold up. The North Korean nuclear threat was exactly the same eight years ago as it is today. North Korea was then believed to have extracted 12 or 13 kilograms of plutonium, enough to make one or two nuclear weapons. In late 1993, the U.S. intelligence community concluded that there was a “better than even chance” that Pyongyang had done just that—a conclusion widely reported at the time.
In the mid-1990s, a new analysis of the available data actually concluded that North Korea had reprocessed less plutonium (only 8 or 10 kilograms) than originally believed. Last summer, the intelligence community determined that North Korea had begun an illicit uranium-enrichment program in 2000—a fact that North Korean officials acknowledged in October. But these programs involve a different and more complicated technology. They will not produce sufficient weapons-grade material to construct a nuclear bomb until 2005 at the earliest.
As for Krauthammer’s argument that North Korea’s conventional capability is too daunting, the military balance of forces has indeed changed—but in America’s favor. The hawks repeatedly cite America’s new might in calling for war with Iraq. Regime change there will be a cakewalk, they say, because U.S. forces are so much more capable than they were during the Gulf War. Yet the same increased capability holds true for the Korean peninsula as well, except that there the balance has shifted even more dramatically. Since 1994, North Korea has lost perhaps as many as 2 million people—10 percent of its population—in a catastrophic famine. The country’s entire gross domestic product totals less than 4 percent of the U.S. defense budget. A second Korean War would no doubt be costly, but the United States could win any such conflict quickly and decisively.
So what is going on? Why the war cries then and a willingness to capitulate to a nuclear North Korea now? The answer seems to lie in the one thing that did change since the last Korean nuclear crisis: the party holding the White House. In 1994, North Korea gave the hawks a convenient stick with which to beat Bill Clinton. The particulars of the military balance on the Korean peninsula and the feasibility of a war there were irrelevant. The target wasn’t the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, it was the Democratic Party.
But focusing on the hawks’ hypocrisy misses the real danger in their policy reversal. They are now encouraging a White House that will neither negotiate with Pyongyang nor compel it to change course. The most likely consequence of this strategy is the acceleration of North Korea’s nuclear program rather than its end—something that bipartisan policy has sought for decades to avoid. The administration’s do-nothing policy is foolish and dangerous, and quite unnecessary.
Whether North Korea today possesses even a single nuclear weapon can be debated. The intelligence community based its conclusion that one or two bombs exist not on hard evidence but on the assumption that if Pyongyang could produce a minimal amount of fissile material, it could build a bomb. The White House itself agrees that Pyongyang currently possesses no more than two nuclear weapons. Preventing North Korea from acquiring more weapons is therefore essential. Although Powell dismisses the threat of additional weapons—”What are they going to do with another two or three nuclear weapons when they’re starving, when they have no energy, when they have no economy that’s functioning?” he asks—the threat is clear. A North Korea that has eight or 10 weapons, let alone dozens, has a much greater chance of delivering one successfully. And a North Korea that has weapons to spare can sell some to the highest bidders, such as al-Qaeda. This is precisely what a starving, bankrupt country is likely to do—and it is precisely the nightmare that President Bush warned against in denouncing the axis of evil.
In these circumstances, a policy of capitulation will not do. But neither is it enough simply to seek to restore the 1994 Agreed Framework. Pyongyang’s admission that it violated that deal means that it must be made to do more now. It must account for all its fissile material and spent fuel, and ship both out of the country. It must also shut down all its nuclear facilities and place them under international inspection. And inspectors must have the right to go anywhere, anytime, to ensure North Korea’s compliance.
The only way to get Pyongyang to end its nuclear aspirations is to offer it a choice between more carrots and bigger sticks. If North Korea agrees to these demands, the United States and its regional allies should be prepared to sign a peace treaty (including new security guarantees), establish full diplomatic relations and offer significant economic assistance—all tied to specific steps that North Korea must take to dismantle its nuclear program. As an extra incentive, Washington must make clear that if Pyongyang fails to put its nuclear facilities under international control within a preset time frame of one or two months, the United States will destroy its nuclear facilities—and the dear leader’s regime should he choose to retaliate.
The Bush administration and its hawkish supporters have found their match in Kim Jong Il’s North Korea. Now—when the very threat they have long warned of is about to materialize—is not the time for the United States to blink. Now is the time for unity in action to confront this threat.
Asia’s stability: Glancing back, looking forward
On April 11, Jamie Horsley spoke on a panel about China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Asian development during a session of the American Bar Association’s Section of International Law 2019 Annual Conference, held in Washington, D.C.