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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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(4) Working around the pro-appeasement crowd in the South Korean government. U.S. policy on the North Korean crisis suffered a setback, and a serious one, with the December 2002 South Korean presidential election, thanks to which a coterie of New Left-style academics and activists assumed great influence over their government's security policies. Despite placid assurances from "old Korea hands" in the State Department and elsewhere that this crew would "mellow" in office, the core of this new government (a cadre dubbed "the Taliban" by the South Korean press) has remained implacably anti-American and reflexively pro-appeasement toward Pyongyang. (Last week, for example, South Korea's president publicly averred that both military and economic pressure were off the table as instruments for resolving the North Korean nuclear crisis; a few days later the South Korean Defense Ministry made the breathtaking announcement that North Korea would no longer be designated as the "primary enemy" facing its military forces.)

For all intents and purposes, South Korea is now a runaway ally: a country bordering a state committed to its destruction, and yet governed increasingly in accordance with graduate-school "peace studies" desiderata--while at the same time relying on forward-positioned American troops and a security treaty with Washington to guarantee its safety. It is not too much to describe this utterly unnatural and unviable situation as our "second crisis" on the Korean peninsula.

The simultaneous task of salvaging the Washington-Seoul alliance while avoiding "Taliban" sabotage of a North Korea threat-reduction policy presents exceptional--indeed, extraordinary--challenges to U.S. statecraft. But not insurmountable ones. Over the past decade, some giant South Korean conglomerates that once boasted they were "too big to fail" have completely disappeared from the corporate scene. Everyone in South Korea today remembers this--so they can also intuit the hollowness of their current president's strange claim just last week that the U.S.-South Korean relationship is likewise too big to fail. Public opinion in South Korea is deeply--and quite evenly--divided on the North Korea question, and the current government earns consistently low approval ratings. Instead of appeasing South Korea's appeasers (as our policy to date has attempted to do, albeit clumsily) America should be speaking over their heads directly to the Korean people, building and nurturing the coalitions in South Korean domestic politics that will ultimately bring a prodigal ally back into the fold.

(5) Readying the nondiplomatic instruments for North Korea threat reduction. Diplomacy on the North Korean nuclear front may well fail--in which case a variety of nondiplomatic alternatives must be at the ready. Paradoxically, however, preparing for the deliberate use of nonconsensual, non-diplomatic options with North Korea will actually increase the probability of a diplomatic success.

(6) Planning for a post-Communist Korean peninsula. For far too long, policymakers in the United States and elsewhere have acted as if contemplating the practical implications of the Kim Jong Il regime's demise were somehow "thinking the unthinkable." Instead, American policy should be actively engaged in planning for a successful transition to a post-Kim Jong Il Korea--and in coordinating with allies and other interested parties to maximize the opportunities and minimize the risks in that delicate and potentially dangerous process. Many uncertainties lie in store on the road to a free, democratic, non-nuclear, and united Korean peninsula, but there can be absolutely no doubt that such a destination is the very best objective--not only for the Korean people but for all their neighbors as well.

AS PRESIDENT BUSH contemplates North Korea policy for a second term, he could do worse than to dwell on his legacy. During the presidential campaign, John Kerry asserted that the North Korea problem was worse now than four years ago--and he was right. (Kerry's own clueless prescription--to seek and cut a bilateral deal with Kim Jong Il--does not invalidate the diagnosis.)

Most people in the present administration judge the Clinton administration harshly for bequeathing to posterity a more serious international terrorist threat than it inherited--and rightly so. If North Korea's threat to America is greater four years from now than today, that will be a Bush administration legacy. And history is unlikely to judge such a legacy kindly.

Nicholas Eberstadt holds the Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.