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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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: