Ping Pyongyang

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
March 31 2001 12:00 AM

Ping Pyongyang

Unusually, I happen to be in Washington this week and am struck by how, aside from the weather (unseasonably cold) one of the most common topics of conversation is North Korea. It isn't a place we chat about much in Warsaw, which is perhaps why I can't help but notice the frequency with which the subject arises—although I suspect it has more to do with American politics than any sudden interest in the antics of the Dear Leader.

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To be more specific, I've noted that both pundits (click here or here to see what I mean) and random people I've run into have already begun citing "North Korea" as an example of the bad new "hard-line" Bush administration foreign policy. The man in the white hat is gone, the man in the black hat is back, the argument goes: We were so recently on the road to peace, and now, thanks to the "hard-liners," we are set for a new confrontation. At the same time, I am struck by how very little is actually written about what, exactly, these mysterious "missile negotiations" we are supposedly having with North Korea actually entail, and in what way President Bush has changed them.

Let me first remind everyone of how we got to where we are today. For the record, North Korea is a small, bankrupt, isolated but brutal dictatorship. North Korea is famous for its cruel treatment of dissidents and for its susceptibility to mass famine. At the same time, North Korea recently demonstrated that it does have the ability to launch long-range missiles. It may also be pretty close to designing the nuclear weapons to stick on top of them.

Nevertheless, in 1994 the Clinton administration did a deal with North Korea. The North Koreans agreed not to build the wrong, bomb-producing sort of nuclear reactor; instead, we agreed to provide them with "aid" and promised to build them two of the right, non-bomb-producing sort of nuclear reactors, to the tune of $5 billion.

More recently, the North Koreans have offered us another deal: They will agree not to export any of their long-range missile technology if we offer them even more "aid," to the tune of $1 billion. Since then, they have also offered not to launch any more missiles if we provide them with communications satellites (it remains unclear why starving North Koreans need satellites).

At the same time the North has also begun cautiously opening itself up to the South, agreeing, most spectacularly, to entertain a visit from the South Korean president, Kim Dae-jung. In exchange for that, and for some symbolic family exchanges, the North has also made clear that it expects South Korean investments—of its choosing—as well as more "aid' for its dying economy.

Those who complain that all this sounds a lot like a form of high-stakes blackmail are right: It is. North Korea wants to keep its dying economy going; we want to prevent North Korea from launching nuclear weapons at Honolulu. No one, from any side of the political divide, has suggested that involvement in these negotiations has in anyway changed or softened the North Korean regime. To put it differently, North Korea has not undergone some kind of radical transformation that all nice, peace-loving people should be rallying to support. Indeed, recent visitors to Pyongyang have failed to notice any sort of transformation whatsoever (click here for my previous report on this subject): Instead, most have found the same extreme isolationism, paranoia about foreigners, and evidence of famine (women surreptitiously eating grass in public parks) that others found in the past. The question is not, therefore, whether we should "support" some sort of reformist regime in North Korea, but whether we want to be involved in this sort of blackmail at all—and if we do, can we be certain that the North will hold up its part of the blackmail bargain. On both counts, there were and are some prominent doubters, on both sides of the political divide.

Here are two examples: The first is a report produced in November 1999 by the House speakers' North Korea advisory group, which concluded that North Korea continues to "threaten American and allied interests" despite the fact that it is now one of the largest recipients of U.S. aid in Asia. Rather than reform its economy, they concluded, North Korea has chosen to extort money from South Korea, the United States, or anyone else who will participate.

The second is a Council on Foreign Relations report from July 1999, which, while more in favor of keeping relations open even in the face of renewed North Korean aggression, did acknowledge the difficulties of dealing with Pyongyang. Sure they've allowed in South Korean tourists—but North Koreans are kept far away from them. Sure they'll bargain with the South—but they sometimes insert new conditions in the deal before fulfilling their promises.

Neither report was anything but skeptical about the prospects for change in North Korea. Neither recommended treating the North Korean regime with anything but skepticism.

Indeed, this skepticism has been reflected in American policy toward North Korea over the past eight years, even if the president's own rhetoric sometimes seemed more optimistic. I note, for the record, that in the six years since the 1994 accord, we never did get around to building those light-water reactors: Other excuses were given, but doubts about the North's willingness to hold up its end of the bargain were an important part of the explanation. Nor did Clinton himself ever get around to making a much-anticipated visit to Pyongyang. This was, I might note, largely because U.S.-North Korea missile talks quietly collapsed in November 2000.

And what has changed since President Bush took over? According to a State Department official: nothing. That is, no element of our policy has yet been actually altered. All that has happened is that the public enthusiasm of President Clinton—which masked the private skepticism of everyone else—is gone, replaced by the public skepticism of President Bush. I don't really see why this should be cause for massive liberal despair: All it does is make public what was, in fact, the previous administration's own policy. It also means we are less likely to be embarrassed when the North Koreans behave the way we always suspected they were going to behave anyway.

True, the North Koreans have noticed the change: The regime's Web site thunders that the Bush administration is "getting on their nerves" and is "raising silly questions" about the Democratic People's Republic of North Korea. A North Korean diplomat haughtily told a European diplomat of my acquaintance that North Korea was fully prepared to launch satellites on its own, if the Untied States wouldn't do it for them. And you can see why they are angry: If North Korea is worried about losing the American aid it needs to keep its people from starving, that might endanger the existence of what may be one of the world's most backward and unpleasant regimes. No one, I'm afraid, will mourn the loss.

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