The Magazine

Tear Down This Tyranny

From the November 29, 2004 issue: A Korea strategy for Bush's second term.

Nov 29, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 11 • By NICHOLAS EBERSTADT
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THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION is not famous for patience with its critics. But for the sake of national security, the new Bush team should listen to constructive criticism of its policies--in particular, its policy for the North Korean nuclear crisis. The current U.S. approach to the North Korea problem is demonstrably flawed; arguably, even dangerously flawed.

Just what is wrong? After nearly four years in office, the curious fact remains that the Bush administration plainly lacks a strategy for dealing with the North Korean regime. Instead, it merely confronts Pyongyang with an attitude.

President Bush and his inner circle regard Kim Jong Il and his system with an admixture of loathing, contempt, and distrust--as well they might. Unfortunately, a mechanism for translating that point of view into effective action was manifestly absent from the statecraft of Bush's first-term administration. Long on attitude ("axis of evil") but short on strategy, the administration on North Korea was at times akin to a rudderless boat on an open sea.

Without rehearsing every detail, we might say that we have seen the Bush North Korea policy in "shocked by events" mode; we have seen it in "reactive" mode; we have seen it in "passive-aggressive" mode; and we have seen it in "paralyzed by infighting" mode. But we have yet to see it in "making bigger problems into smaller ones" mode.

A better approach for the second term might start with two strategic precepts:

Precept One: We are exceedingly unlikely to talk--or to bribe--the current North Korean government out of its nuclear quest. Talk and bribery have been tried for nearly 15 years--with miserable results. If Kim Jong Il ever could have been talked or bribed out of his nuclear program, the world's best opportunity was probably during the mid-1990s, when the nation was starving, and the regime's survival looked very much in doubt. We all know how the Clinton team's "denuclearization" deals in that era turned out: Pyongyang took the money, and plowed it into new covert nuclear programs.

Precept Two: The North Korean nuclear crisis is the North Korean government--and the North Korean government is the North Korean nuclear crisis. Unless and until we have a better class of dictator running North Korea, we will be faced with an ongoing and indeed growing North Korean nuclear crisis. Pretending otherwise is a sure recipe for an even more dangerous situation.

Embracing those precepts would have immediate implications for American North Korea policy. Here are a few of the things a successful policy will require:

(1) Instituting regime change--at the State Department. If any doubt remained whether the first-term diplomatic team was up to the challenge of North Korea policy, it was removed by Secretary Colin Powell's hapless trip through East Asia last month, when he was publicly blindsided in both Beijing and Seoul by our putative partners in the Six Party Talks. North Korea is one of the most serious problems America faces today; our diplomatic crew needs to understand the threat.

(2) Defining "success" and "failure" for North Korea negotiations. To date, the Six Party Talks on North Korean denuclearization have produced--well, talk; meanwhile, North Korea has been racing to build up its nuclear arsenal. This perverse dynamic should be utterly unacceptable. For upcoming parlays, Washington needs to spell out clearly and in advance the outcomes that will constitute success, and those that amount to failure. And the administration must not be shy about declaring the process a failure if in fact it is.

(3) Increasing China's "ownership" of the North Korean problem. Thus far, Beijing has very successfully hedged the North Korean crisis--sometimes affecting to be part of the solution, other times directly contributing to the problem. Washington has been far too complacent about China's unprincipled ambiguity. After all: China will bear high costs if the current denuclearization diplomacy fails--and even greater dangers lie in store for Beijing if Pyongyang becomes a full-fledged nuclear power. Our cooperation with China will be more productive once we understand this. And once Beijing is obliged to think clearly about its own interests in North Korea threat reduction, we can expect a more forceful and consistent Chinese focus on the Kim Jong Il regime.