The State Department is engaged in heavy-duty spin to keep alive the clearly failing Six Party Talks on North Korean disarmament. But no amount of spin can hide the fact that whoever becomes president in 2009 will face a North Korean problem worse than that which Bill Clinton bequeathed to George W. Bush.
Last week, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Christopher Hill, State's top Asia diplomat, had to explain away the fact that Pyongyang has missed its deadline for fully declaring all of its nuclear weapons programs. Even more difficult was fudging the very open question of continuing North Korean proliferation.
Just the day before, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell testified that the intelligence community has "moderate confidence"--intelligence speak for "we have evidence"--that North Korea has an ongoing uranium enrichment program. McConnell further assessed that Pyongyang has produced enough plutonium for up to half a dozen nuclear weapons, and has the ballistic missile capability to hit the continental United States with those weapons. In short, notwithstanding State Department spin, North Korea has nuclear weapons and the ability to use them against the United States and her allies. There is little prospect that current U.S. policy will change North Korea's nuclear status.
Then there is the subject of proliferation. U.N. Security Council resolutions, Six Party Talk agreements, and U.S. warnings are supposed to prevent Pyongyang from proliferating any weapons of mass destruction or ballistic missile technology. But it seems pretty clear that when Israel struck a site in Syria in September 2007, it was because North Korea was helping ramp up a Syrian WMD program of some sort. All Hill had to say to Congress on this matter was that the State Department takes the issue of North Korean proliferation seriously--diplomatic talk meaning we're not planning to do anything about it.
The real state of play, then, is that North Korea will not fully declare, much less disable or dismantle, its nuclear weapons programs, and it has continued to proliferate. To mask this noncompliance, the State Department will talk optimistically of the next phases of diplomacy, continuing to provide North Korea with heavy fuel oil, removing it from the list of state sponsors of terror, even negotiating a peace treaty and full normalization. In short, no amount of evidence of North Korea's bad intentions will deter the Bush administration from declaring diplomatic victory.
This policy collapse on North Korea has happened at a rapid clip. It was just a year and a half ago that Bush told an audience in Singapore that we would "hold North Korea fully accountable for the consequences of such actions" if it shared WMD technology. If Pyongyang was not helping Syria with a WMD program, then the administration should say so forthrightly to help save its faltering policy.
After North Korea's ballistic missile and nuclear tests in 2006, the administration got tough, with two strong U.N. resolutions and financial sanctions that hurt Kim and his cronies directly. President Bush then decided to give the regime he loathes one last chance to come clean, after decades of lying and cheating. Assistant Secretary Hill got it exactly backwards when he told senators on February 6 that "we" have much work to do in getting Pyongyang to rid itself of its nuclear programs. The burden is on Pyongyang to come clean. "We," meaning Washington (plus Tokyo, Seoul, Beijing, and Moscow), must verify that they have done so and punish them if they have not.
Besides creating a more dangerous Korean peninsula, the Six Party process has caused a breach with our most important ally, Japan, which wanted to take a tougher line. What's more, China is making its own plans and arrangements to deal with an unstable and nuclear North Korea. Beijing, too, has little faith in the talks and has drawn up military plans to intervene in North Korea to protect its own interests. All parties are concerned about China's intentions, which they are keeping to themselves. If North Korea does collapse, American, Japanese, and South Korean war planners will have to consider the possibility of dealing with a unilateral Chinese intervention. China's trade with the North tripled between 2000 and 2005--with an eye toward gaining more influence over the future disposition of the peninsula.
The Six Party Talks, supposedly a model of multilateral diplomacy, have thus caused each party to act more unilaterally. Washington is essentially conducting its own negotiations with Pyongyang. Japan, a little less confident of U.S. protection, is showing a keener interest in having its own military capabilities to defend against North Korean missiles. And China is taking military and economic measures of its own to live with or perhaps even control an unstable, nuclear regime on its borders. The situation is, in short, more precarious than when this new round of diplomacy began.
President Bush, who has shown a remarkable steadfastness on Iraq, keen not to bequeath a Middle East disaster to his successor, still has an opportunity to change course in Korea. South Korea's new president, Lee Myung-bak, seems willing to be less conciliatory to Kim Jong Il and repair relations with Japan and Washington. South Korea has little interest in seeing a Chinese satellite state to its north. But Lee is getting mixed messages from Washington. He can't take a tougher line if Washington sticks to its "agreement at any price" course.
Rather than tying the hands of the next president, President Bush could start taking a more realistic approach to North Korea. First, Washington can halt its economic largesse until North Korea makes a full, and verifiable, declaration of its nuclear programs. Any talk of de-listing North Korea as a terrorist state or of normalizing relations is inappropriate given North Korea's continued bad behavior. Second, the Bush administration should tell the truth about North Korea's proliferation. If Pyongyang proliferated, it is time to once again sanction, squeeze, isolate, and perhaps even quarantine it. Third, the administration should focus its time and energy on building a common approach with South Korea and Japan. Washington shares with its democratic allies an interest in a democratic, unified peninsula. All three parties should ramp up efforts to take in the refugees still pouring out of North Korea.
The prospect of real change in North Korea under Kim is next to zero. All three countries should thus reestablish a strong deterrent posture that will be necessary as they work toward the only real, albeit long term, solution: a unified Korea free of Kim Jong Il and his ilk.
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.