As President Bill Clinton announced Thursday — no doubt with a fair amount of regret — that he would not be making a state visit to North Korea before the end of his term, he kept the message upbeat. There was “a lot of progress” in talks with Pyongyang, and he felt confident that the road had been paved for more progress under the next U.S. leader. It was, in effect, an admission that there has been little payoff for dealing with the communist regime in Pyongyang.
In fact, what President-elect George W. Bush inherits are stalled missile talks and a lot of mixed messages from North Korea.
The regime in Pyongyang remains extremely opaque. It faces off with U.S. and South Korean troops at the 38th parallel with massive conventional forces, enough to wreak terrible havoc on Seoul. Even after years of haggling, the status of its nuclear weapons program is unclear, and it is believed to maintain chemical and biological weapons capabilities. Some aid groups estimate that as many as 2 million to 3 million North Koreans starved to death because of poor management and natural disaster. Pyongyang has one of the worst human rights records in the world.
“I would not dispute that progress has been made [under Clinton]. The question is at what price,” said Jonathan Pollack, of the Strategic Research Department at Newport’s Naval War College. “We’re engaged in this open-ended negotiation and haggling over billions of dollars with this very misbegotten regime … which is able to threaten U.S. forces [in the region] and has no redeeming value.”
Bush enters with the White House with a team that has vowed to review the U.S. policy on the Korean peninsula. But they may find they have little room to maneuver.
The social debut of North Korea — a totalitarian state that has been isolationist and shunned in equal degree — has been intense but short-lived. The height of optimism that Pyongyang would shed its bad-boy status and join the rest of the world came in June, when North Korean President Kim Jong Il hosted a state summit with rival South Korean President Kim Dae-jung. South Korea, although technically still at war with the North, has pursued a “sunshine policy” to thaw its Cold War enemy.
The two Kims talked about steering their countries away from conflict, a threat that looms large along the most heavily armed border in the world. They agreed to allow exchanges among family members divided by the Korean War 50 years ago. These events, as a South Korean journalist put it, “were simply unimaginable.”
U.S. relations with Pyongyang, too, seemed to bound ahead with a visit by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Pyongyang in October, despite the absence of diplomatic relations between the nations or even a lower-level U.S. presence on the ground there. For the occasion, Kim orchestrated thousands of cheering, marching and flag-waving citizens and soldiers in a way that only a dictator could. Albright held six hours of talks with the once enigmatic “Son of Heaven.” They toasted. She even danced.
The euphoria was intense at least in part because more was learned about Kim during these visits than had even been known. The young Kim, who inherited power from his father, Kim Il Sung, after his 1994 death, was congenial, rational, even humorous — not, as had long been rumored, either slightly dim or crazy. “Up until about two years ago, virtually no one [from outside] had spoken to Kim. We had only one recorded sentence of Kim Jong Il on tape,” said Pollack. “Part of the lure [of the trip] may have been that it was sort of like landing on the moon.”
Disenchantment sets in
But now, just a few months later, many Korea analysts are wondering what the Clinton policy of engagement with Pyongyang has actually accomplished. Under a framework agreement of 1994, the United States, Japan, Europe and South Korea agreed to fund two light-water nuclear reactors to supply power for North Korea. In return, Pyongyang agreed to halt its nuclear weapons development. The project, administered by a multinational body, has fallen far behind schedule because of doubts over North Korean compliance.
It fell further behind two years ago, when the North Koreans suddenly launched a test missile near Japan, stunning those who had been trying to lure the country out of isolation.
Since 1997, under an effort initiated by then Defense Secretary William Perry, the United States has attempted intensive engagement with North Korea, laying out a list of goals for the regime that would lead Pyongyang, ultimately, to resumption of diplomatic ties with Washington. Primary among the goals of the so-called “Perry Initiative” was to stop North Korean ballistic missile development, testing and exports. In exchange, North Korea hoped the United States would help it launch a satellite and offer billions in aid.
Despite at least a temporary stop to testing, missile talks have stalled. Without this deal to sign, at least, Clinton’s trip to North Korea would have been historic but politically awkward. “It would have been very difficult to reach a verifiable deal that would have satisfied North Korea’s critics,” said Robert Dujarric, a research fellow at the Hudson Institute.
It’s not just the United States that has mud on its face. Japan has given aid to North Korea. South Korea has not only risked a presidential visit to Pyongyang but has generated private investment in the decrepit economy to the North and channeled food aid and fertilizer worth billions of dollars.
“The North Koreans have done virtually nothing to keep their promises,” Dujarric said. “They have shown no sign of disarmament, they have not reciprocated by freeing kidnapped Japanese. The family meetings they have authorized have been very limited.”
Little incentive for Kim
In the growing wave of skepticism about “engaging” Pyongyang, the administration’s harshest critics say that the effort amounts to “bribing” North Korea not to threaten its neighbors but that even then it fails to achieve its goal.
Nor does it appear to achieve any ancillary goals.
“Albright had a six-hour meeting with Kim Jong Il,” noted Nayan Chanda, editor-at-large of the Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review. “The word ‘reform’ was never used. There is no indication that they are willing to change their system,” he said. “They attribute all their problems to bad weather and bad luck.”
Others note that the talks probably have little hope of progressing because North Korea’s missile arsenal is one of its few remaining things the military regime has for leverage. “U.S.-North Korean talks are not going well, because North Korea cannot yet trust the United States,” said a U.S.-based scholar with close ties to Pyongyang. “The missile is their trump card. They will want significant compensation for it. The most the U.S. can say is that ‘we will try to get Congress to re-establish relations.’”
It is also worth noting that Kim Jong Il relies to a greater degree than his father on the military, whose power has outstripped that of the Communist Party. Negotiating a stop to weapon exports would directly affect military interests.
Can Bush fix it?
Clinton’s North Korea policy made an easy target for the Bush campaign, which vowed to review some of its basic principles.
Condoleezza Rice, whom Bush recently selected as his national security adviser, writing in the January/February 2000 issue of Foreign Policy, criticized Clinton for not being resolute and decisive with Pyongyang, threatening the use of force and then backing down:
“The first line of defense should be a clear and classical statement of deterrence — if they do acquire [weapons of mass destruction], their weapons will be unusable because any attempt to use them will bring national obliteration,” she said. “Second, we should accelerate efforts to defend against these weapons.”
But while the new administration may attempt a new tack, it is unlikely to take as hard a line as it did during the campaign. And it won’t have much maneuvering room to be as firm or resolute as Rice suggests, in part because it may not be supported by a key ally in the region — South Korea. Seoul has been unsupportive of the Theater Missile Defense program that the administration is pursuing in the region, which aims to defend U.S. forces in the region from attack.
Kim Dae-jung encouraged the United States to pursue improved ties with Pyongyang, in line with his own “sunshine policy” toward the north.
The Bush team has suggested that a deterrent to North Korean aggression would involve beefing up U.S. defense relations with Japan to provide greater deterrence to North Korea. That’s likely to be tough going, too, because Japan is economically and politically paralyzed right now.
That effort and the Theater Missile Defense plan both create deep anxiety in Beijing, which the new administration hopes to keep on good terms.
Bush has suggested that he would review the U.S. commitment to the nuclear power project in North Korea. That, too, would be difficult, although not impossible, because it is a multilateral project involving Europe, Japan, South Korea and others.
In short, the process of negotiations, painstaking and painful, are deeply ingrained now and difficult to reverse. Pyongyang, it seems, has taken the upper hand in those talks, a process that even a new administration will have trouble reversing.
Kari Huus is an international correspondent for MSNBC.com.