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.

Far from welcoming opportunities to open his country to trade and outside influences, Kim regards these as deeply threatening to his own survival. To believe that he would abandon his nuclear weapons to ensure a better life for his people is to indulge in fantasy.

After confronting Pyongyang in 2002 with evidence of its hitherto secret highly enriched uranium program, the Bush administration responded to further provocations by Kim--pulling out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, reprocessing plutonium--by organizing and engaging in multilateral diplomacy, with the Chinese, Japanese, Russians, and South Koreans as partners. The purpose of this effort was to secure a verifiable end to the North Korean nuclear program through a combination of negotiation and increasing economic and diplomatic pressure.

That approach could have worked, if all of the parties had been willing to both talk and, if necessary, squeeze. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Pyongyang's economic position has been precarious. Without aid, fuel, and hard currency flowing in from its neighbors, the North could not survive. A credible threat by all countries to cut Kim's lifeline would have presented him with a stark choice: Give up your weapons or risk losing control of your country.

While the United States and Japan have followed through on both halves of the "talk and squeeze" strategy, China and South Korea have not. Indeed, to the contrary, since the current standoff began, both have increased their assistance to the North, effectively buffering it against pressure. Present policy has failed, not because the United States has been too tough and unyielding, but because China, South Korea, and the U.N. Development Program have been too soft.

Each of our erstwhile partners has its reasons for going easy on Pyongyang. Under the leadership of Kim Dae Jung and now Roh Moo Hyun, South Korea's government has been committed to a policy of unconditional engagement that is indistinguishable from appeasement. Behind the rhetoric of unification, Seoul is in no rush to take on the enormous burdens of rebuilding an impoverished and backward North. While the South Korean presidential election scheduled for late 2007 may bring tougher and more realistic leaders to power, dramatic shifts are unlikely anytime soon.

China's relative passivity is the product of a number of considerations. Taking action to force North Korea to abandon its nuclear program carries substantial risks for Beijing. Pressed to the wall, Kim's regime could lash out or collapse, unleashing a flood of refugees, depriving China of a buffer state, and possibly denying it the ability to shape the long-term disposition of the Korean peninsula. Meanwhile, by holding out the hope that it may yet help solve the North Korean nuclear issue, Beijing earns credit from, and gains leverage over, Washington. From where China's leaders sit, a continuation of the status quo has considerable benefits.

Persuading Beijing to change course therefore depends on convincing it that continued passivity is riskier than action. In 2002 and early 2003 China's leaders believed that Washington might very well use force against the North, and they may have feared that the Japanese were about to embark on their own nuclear program. Deeply concerned about the direction of Bush administration policy in East Asia, and eager to improve relations with Washington, Beijing probably also believed that its performance on the North Korean issue would be seen as a litmus test and could determine the future course of its relations with the United States.

Today, despite expressions of concern over "tensions on the Korean peninsula," China's leaders are far more relaxed. Washington has effectively taken the use of force off the table, assured Beijing that Japan will not go nuclear, and made clear its commitment to maintaining close ties with China, regardless of what it does, or fails to do, on North Korea. Given all this, it is far easier, indeed, much more rational, for Beijing to hold to its existing policy.

Trying to change China's calculus will not be easy and could be risky, but the alternatives are clear: either a bad deal that, like the 1994 Agreed Framework, alleviates pressure and rewards North Korea without excising its nuclear capabilities, or a continued stalemate that permits Pyongyang to solidify its position as a nuclear weapons state.

If the Bush administration wants to have a chance of solving the North Korean problem, it will need to take three steps:

First, instead of backing off, the president should authorize the imposition of further financial sanctions on the North. He should also quietly tell Beijing that, unless it is willing to clean its own house, the U.S. government will follow the money trail of North Korea's counterfeiting and smuggling wherever it leads, even if this means going after banks, front companies, and individuals in China.

Second, instead of endlessly praising Beijing for its thus far fruitless efforts, the administration should make clear that failure to bring the North Korean issue to a satisfactory resolution will inevitably have consequences for U.S.-China relations. The White House now faces a Democratic majority in Congress that may press for protectionist measures against China. Fending off such demands with the argument that China is an essential diplomatic partner and a "responsible stakeholder" will be much harder, the administration should make clear, if Beijing fails to deliver on North Korea.

Finally, the U.S. government needs to make clear that, regardless of how events unfold, it will do what is necessary to defend its own interests and to help its Asian allies defend theirs. If North Korea's nuclear programs are not rolled back, Washington cannot be expected indefinitely to be able to keep the Japanese nuclear genie in the bottle. Faced with a hostile regime that is expanding its nuclear arsenal and threatening to sell nuclear technology and materials, Washington can lead a regional coalition to contain and deter North Korea and to work toward a unified, democratic Korean peninsula. This may require, among other things, a larger U.S. military presence off China's coasts, more aggressive interdiction efforts against North Korean ships and aircraft, more attempts to help North Korean citizens escape, and greater integration of missile defense and other programs with Japan and perhaps also South Korea and Taiwan.

As in Iraq, there are no easy options and no guarantees of success. But in Asia, as in the Middle East, it is also plain that "staying the course," or trying again what failed in the past, is not an acceptable strategy.

Aaron Friedberg is a professor of politics at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School and a former deputy national security adviser to Vice President Cheney. Dan Blumenthal is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and former senior director for China and Taiwan in the office of the secretary of defense.