There is no ignoring North Korea, as the Bush administration is learning the hard way. Since revelations about its nuclear program surfaced in October, Pyongyang’s Stalinist regime has squared off with the conservative White House, answering each move in Washington with new threats and harsh rhetoric. And when President Bush shifted to a notably more conciliatory tone, North Korea’s official press scoffed, calling the whole thing a “deceptive drama.”
As if by instinct, the Bush administration took a hard line toward Pyongyang from the beginning of its term. But following through with aggressive economic or military action could trigger a devastating backlash for South Korea and the region. Further complicating the situation, the White House is focused on its building showdown with Iraq and reluctant to pursue two military conflicts at once.
Pyongyang, a tough-as-nails negotiator even in better times, is gambling on these constraints to push its own demands — that the United States offer a formal promise of non-aggression and halt efforts to isolate the regime.
For Bush, that presents a political problem. To some extent, the reclusive dictator Kim Jong Il may be bluffing, but that is uncertain, as is the extent of Pyongyang’s arsenal. Calling that bluff could have a much higher price tag than confronting Iraq, analysts say.
“The administration is in a bind now,” says Eric Heginbotham, director of an independent task force on North Korea at the Council on Foreign Relations. A deal may be necessary to defuse the crisis, but, he says: “Bush will take a lot of criticism from hawks in his own party.”
The latest chapter in the Korean crisis started in October, when the Bush administration says an official from communist North Korea, when presented with damning CIA evidence, admitted his country had a uranium enrichment program. That violated the spirit if not the letter of the 1994 Agreed Framework, under which Pyongyang agreed to mothball its nuclear reactors and stop all development of atomic weapons. In response, the White House announced it would suspend oil supplies provided to North Korea under the agreement. From there, the situation quickly went downhill. North Korea argued that the United States was not honoring its obligations under the deal and said it would restart its old plutonium reactor. Later, Pyongyang declared it had dropped out of the 1968 Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, the cornerstone of efforts to control the spread of nuclear weapons around the world, and kicked out U.N. nuclear monitors.
Analysts say that Pyongyang’s recent threats may indicate that North Korea is preparing to resume missile testing, which it halted after firing a missile over Japan in 1998.
Inaction: Not an option
One of the few things most analysts agree on is that something must be done, because even if North Korea is not inclined to use nuclear weapons — and it is believed to possess one or two nuclear bombs — its withdrawal from the non-proliferation treaty opens the way for it to sell its nuclear technology to others.
As it is, the sale of conventional weapons is North Korea’s largest source of foreign exchange, and it has not been discriminating about its clients — which include Syria, Libya and others. In a failing economy, the temptation will be great.
“If we do nothing at all, … North Korea emerges as a declared nuclear power in a year or so,” undermining security throughout the region, predicts Nicholas Eberstadt, a Korea expert at the American Enterprise Institute. “Then you have a nuclear-armed Korea as a nuclear arms merchant, … and the world looks a lot more dangerous,” he says.
Analysts say the United States is capable of invading the north or simply making a surgical strike on North Korea’s reactivated Yongbyon nuclear facility.
But in recent weeks, the White House has stated virtually every day that it believes the conflict with North Korea can and should be resolved diplomatically (even if, as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recently warned, the United States is capable of fighting two conflicts at the same time.)
The reason: The cost of military action would likely be far higher than in the possible Iraq conflict. In a matter of hours, analysts say, North Korean missiles and artillery could devastate South Korea’s capital, Seoul, or hit U.S. bases in South Korea, home to 37,000 U.S. troops.
Also at risk would be relations with key allies — especially South Korea and Japan — who are against tough economic sanctions that could push North Korea toward collapse. Ironically, some think that a strike against North Korea could unravel a 50-year-old U.S. military alliance with the South, which is already facing a rising tide of anti-Americanism.
“North Koreans know the U.S. doesn’t have a military option,” says Robert Dujarric, a research fellow specializing in north Asia at the Hudson Institute. “Kim Jong Il knows that the United States would only go to war if it looked like North Korea was going to strike. As long as that’s not the case, he’s pretty safe.”
Talks, but to what end?
So, the Bush administration’s position slowly morphed into this: The United States is willing to talk with North Korea but unwilling to negotiate or reward “bad behavior.” The United States would also offer food and energy aid to Pyongyang, after North Korea drops its nuclear ambitions. “What we will not do is be blackmailed,” President Bush has insisted.
“I think one has to vaguely start talking to the North to see what it is possible,” says Dujarric of the Hudson Institute. “Just talking shows South Korea that you’re doing something. And it buys time while Iraq is on fire.”
So far, however, Pyongyang does not appear impressed with the administration’s softer tone.
A North Korean Foreign Ministry official lambasted Washington’s offer of energy and food aid as “pie in the sky, as they are possible only after (North Korea) is totally disarmed,” according to the news agency KCNA.
According to the agency report, the unidentified spokesman said his country’s nuclear issue could be resolved only when both sides negotiate “on an equal footing through fair negotiations that may clear both sides of their concerns.”
What does North Korea really want? Pyongyang’s longer-term motives are the subject of debate. But in the short run, one thing Pyongyang has consistently demanded is a “non-aggression treaty” with Washington — a guarantee that the United States will not attack, part of what North Korea negotiated for in the 1994 agreement. The deal was cast as a step on the path to normalizing ties and was expected to bring economic benefits for the North’s fragile economy.
“The fact that the U.S. has not done this does makes it harder for them to get investment,” says Heginbotham at the Council on Foreign Relations. “And economic security is security. After all, we’re talking about regime survival.”
While such an assurance is highly unlikely to come in treaty form, the latest comments from U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell suggested that an assurance might be crafted in another form.
One risk for the administration is that if it does make such an assurance, North Korea will use it to question the U.S. presence in South Korea and fuel a nascent movement to end that presence.
And a guarantee to Pyongyang may just be impossible to swallow for the president, who labeled North Korea part of an “axis of evil” along with Iraq and Iran just a year ago. He shunned the “sunshine policy” of his South Korean counterpart Kim Dae-jung — a groundbreaking series of initiatives to engage the communist North politically and economically. And Bush’s new foreign policy allowing for “pre-emptive strikes” in certain cases deepened North Korea’s paranoia, some analysts say.
In a position paper for the Nautilus Institute, Korea expert Peter Hayes argues that the Bush administration should go much further to resolve the conflict with North Korea by proposing to help with sweeping reforms of the economy, lifting restrictions on U.S. investors in the North and changing policies that prevent international institutions from working there. In short, he argues that providing energy security would be key to alleviating Pyongyang’s dangerous desperation.
“In my view, (North Korea) wants to conclude this deal now,” Hayes writes. “It will pile on the pressure until its nuclear battering ram breaks down the door of the White House.”