The Magazine

Not too Late to Curb Dear Leader

The road to Pyongyang runs through Beijing.

Feb 12, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 21 • By AARON FRIEDBERG and DAN BLUMENTHAL
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Karl Marx famously observed that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. The deal that the Bush administration appears to have entered into with Pyongyang is no joke, but it does have eerie echoes of the one signed 13 years ago by President Bill Clinton. Although, at this writing, details have not been made public, news reports suggest that, in return for a relaxation of financial sanctions imposed in September 2005, Pyongyang will freeze further reprocessing of plutonium at its Yongbyon nuclear facility and return to the negotiating table.

While true believers in the Six Party process will no doubt praise this as progress, it is, in fact, a step in the wrong direction. As in 1994, when it signed the Agreed Framework, North Korea has persuaded others to reward it for taking steps that it can reverse at any time. Pyongyang has worked itself out of a tight spot, the clock has been reset, and the game can begin again. The big difference now, of course, is that in the intervening period the North has accumulated a significant stockpile of weapons-grade plutonium and successfully built and tested a nuclear explosive. Unless the Bush administration changes course, the next president will confront a situation that this one once described as unacceptable: The world's worst regime will have succeeded in acquiring a small arsenal of nuclear weapons, and it will be well on its way to building more.

It may be that nothing can be done to alter this outcome. As has been true for the past four years, the administration has its hands more than full with other problems, and it may simply lack the energy and resources to make a last attempt at solving this one. In recent weeks, however, President Bush has shown a remarkable willingness to defy critics and take risks in hopes of achieving what he regards as essential goals in Iraq. Unless he is content to pass off the North Korean problem to his successor, the president will have to do something similar in East Asia, this time by pressing China to use its very considerable leverage to bring Kim Jong Il to heel.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the time to begin such an effort has now arrived. The president's decision to increase force levels in Iraq has sent a strong signal of resolve to the nation's enemies. Threats of action on other issues are more likely to be taken seriously today than they were only a few months ago. In diplomacy, the appearance of weakness leads to weakness, but strength can also beget strength.

Since North Korea tested a bomb last October, critics have heaped blame on President Bush for "allowing" North Korea to go nuclear. If only the administration had abandoned its stubborn insistence on multilateral negotiations and engaged in one-on-one talks--if only it had recognized the North's legitimate security concerns, and offered guarantees--surely Kim Jong Il could have been talked out of going nuclear.

These speculations overlook the long and unhappy history of negotiations with Pyongyang. For most of the 1990s, Washington was more than willing to offer inducements and aid and to engage the North at the most senior levels of government. Indeed, towards the end of the Clinton administration, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright traveled to Pyongyang, famously toasting the health of a beaming Kim Jong Il. Not a bad day's work for the dictator of a country on the brink of economic collapse. Of course, as we now know, Kim had good reason to smile. Throughout this period, he managed not only to retain the option of restarting his plutonium program but simultaneously to embark upon a secret highly enriched uranium program.

The claim that Kim can be won over with yet more assistance and assurances ignores the rigidly ideological and deeply paranoid nature of his regime. Even if the Dear Leader aspired only to live out his days in peace, he would not be reassured by earnest promises from a country he believes is bent on destroying him. In fact, Kim has far more ambitious goals than mere survival. He has made clear his aim of ruling over a unified Korean Peninsula, and there is every reason to think that he means it. The only thing that would truly make him feel secure would be the withdrawal of the United States, not only from South Korea, but all of East Asia.

At home, Kim governs through terror and coercion and without regard for the suffering of his citizens. To keep his regime in business he uses hard currency to buy luxuries for his inner circle while allowing ordinary people to starve. Many of these dollars are earned through criminal activities, such as counterfeiting and drug smuggling, while others derive, as we have recently learned, from U.N. development aid diverted directly into Kim's bank accounts.