The Magazine

Lessons of a Nuclear North Korea

From the October 28, 2002 issue: The Clinton "engagement" was a failure.

Oct 28, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 07 • By GARY SCHMITT and WILLIAM KRISTOL
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LAST WEEK, the White House announced that North Korea has admitted what critics of the Clinton "engagement" ruefully predicted eight years ago: Pyongyang retains a secret nuclear weapons program, in defiance of its 1994 pledge to forswear nukes. Since the disclosure became public, the Bush administration has been properly stern and sober, indicating that North Korea's behavior must stop and must not be rewarded. But the administration has also felt the need to reassure us that North Korea is not like Iraq. Really?

In fact, both regimes are ruled by homicidal tyrants, engage in terrorism, and are addicted to developing weapons of mass destruction. It's a mistake to argue, as one senior administration official put it, that "these regimes may share some characteristics, but Iraq is in a class by itself." This only undermines the president's own words, his own insight, and ultimately his own credibility about the "axis of evil." Worse, it invites the president's critics to ask, "If Pyongyang can be peacefully engaged, why can't Baghdad?"

The truth is simpler: Both regimes are evil, irredeemably so, and the lasting solution to the threat they pose is a change of regimes in both places. The only difference lies in the means appropriate to the different circumstances. As is often the case in the real world, what makes practical sense in one instance may not in the other.

North Korea has nuclear weapons and a military poised to destroy much of South Korea. Iraq doesn't have those weapons--yet--and its military is only a shell of its former self. Removing Saddam Hussein from power by military means makes sense because it is just, it is doable, and the likely costs to innocent civilians and American forces are low. Unfortunately, the same can't be said with any confidence of an attempt to remove Kim Jong Il and to liberate North Korea. But that is certainly no reason to jump to the conclusion that we shouldn't move ahead against Saddam--or that the only viable policy with respect to Korea is the failed approach of the Clinton years--"engagement" and "normalization" with Pyongyang.

U.S. policy toward North Korea has been a mess for a decade and a half. In 1985, Pyongyang signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. By 1987, it was already playing games with respect to required inspections of its nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). By the early 1990s, there was sufficient intelligence to indicate that North Korea had an illicit nuclear weapons program. Washington's reaction? Play down that fact, facilitate an agreement between North and South to "de-nuke" the peninsula, begin removing our own nuclear weapons from Korea, and cancel U.S. and South Korean military exercises.

By 1993, North Korea was openly in breach of the Nonproliferation Treaty and refusing IAEA inspectors access to its nuclear facilities. President Clinton huffed and puffed about not allowing North Korea to develop the bomb, but in the end he couldn't get the inspectors back in. Fearing a showdown with North Korea, the Clinton administration attempted to bribe the North into ending its nuclear weapons program by promising to build Pyongyang two new (supposedly less weapon-friendly) nuclear reactors, provide it with huge amounts of fuel oil in the meantime, and normalize economic and political relations. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Stanley Roth explained the logic behind the administration's policy: "Who knows what actions North Korea might take if it were desperate?"

Not surprisingly, Pyongyang decided this was a pretty good scam. In 1998, it tested missiles that could dump warheads on both Japan and the United States. As the North Koreans probably hoped, the Clinton team raced to figure out what more they could offer as tribute, if only North Korea would agree to stop its testing of these missiles. By 2000, the administration was in full appeasement mode, with North Korea receiving more U.S. aid than any other nation in East Asia, and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, in a parody of Bob Hope's "Thanks for the Memories," ludicrously warbling at a regional summit: "Just had my first handshake, with Foreign Minister Paek. Used to think he was a rogue, but here at [the summit], he's so in vogue." Only the intervention of the 2000 elections prevented Clinton from going to North Korea to strike a new deal under which we would have been providing even more aid for the boon of a supposedly stopped missile program.