North Korea: Threat or menace?

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Feb. 12 2002 4:19 PM

North Korea: Threat or Menace?

Does North Korea deserve its ranking as a member of the "axis of evil"?

When I first heard the names of the three countries named as a part of the "axis of evil," that old Sesame Street jingle—"one of these things is not like the other"—did, I admit, begin running through my head. The thing in question was North Korea, a country that doesn't spout a contagious version of radical Islam, doesn't have mountains of cash, and isn't thought to be responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. North Korea's presence seems to have stumped others as well. While the debate about Iran and Iraq has been fast and furious—do they belong on the list?; should we invade them? (click here, here, and here for three of Slate's contributions)—no one seems to have much to say about Pyongyang. Charles Krauthammer recently hinted that North Korea might have been named purely in order to prove that we do have some non-Muslim enemies. Others have suggested it was only mentioned in order to justify more investment in missile defense. Is there a case for placing North Korea at the center of America's post-9/11 foreign policy at all?

Next week, when President Bush is due to visit South Korea, quite a lot of people are going to tell him that there isn't. In particular, the South Korean president, Kim Dae-jung, will tell him that there isn't. Over the past several years, President Kim has staked both his personal reputation and his political future on South Korea's "sunshine policy," advocating a gradual warming of relations between the northern and southern halves of the Korean peninsula, and, above all, the making of mutually friendly noises. Even though the sunshine policy has begun to look a touch moribund in recent months—President Kim visited the North, but North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has never made a promised return visit to the South—President Kim's public enthusiasm has never gone away. Although Kim's policy is under domestic political attack, he has staunchly stood by it—and criticized the United States for failing to do so too.

After hearing North Korea named as a part of the "axis of evil," President Kim's distress became even more vocal. His ambassador in Washington was told to take an urgent message to the American president: "[T]he North's nuclear and missile issues should be resolved through dialogue." His supporters in parliament hope to pass a parliamentary resolution to urge North Korea and the United States to resume negotiations, before Bush's arrival.

In Washington, the South has won some influential supporters. Writing in the Washington Post recently, the co-chairmen of the Council on Foreign Relations' Korean task force implicitly agreed with Kim, arguing that a policy of "isolation and withholding aid" would only lead to "renewed tensions on the peninsula." Bush's words, they wrote "can have dangerous escalatory consequences." As I say, you will hear more of this argument next week, when the president visits not only South Korea but also China and Japan. All those countries favor a continuation of U.S.-North Korean negotiations. They all dislike aggressive rhetoric. They all worry about language which has "escalatory consequences."

Yet if we were talking purely about matters of fact, then there wouldn't be much to argue about: "Evil" is a perfectly appropriate and acceptable description of the North Korean leadership. Kim Jong-il's regime is an isolated and nasty dictatorship, famous for murdering its opponents and starving its citizens. Its brutal labor camps are thought to rival those of Stalin's Russia. Its total ban on dissent makes it hard even to know what is going on in the country. Recent visitors to Pyongyang have reported seeing starving women surreptitiously eating grass in the city parks.

If we were talking about threats to the United States, then North Korea sits happily in the axis of evil as well. The North Koreans have produced long-range missiles, which are clearly intended either to hit U.S. allies (Seoul could be destroyed with more ordinary missiles)—or to be sold, or to extract money in exchange for doing neither. To put it more bluntly (as I've done before), the now dormant U.S.-North Korean negotiations of recent years were hardly more than high-stakes blackmail. In essence, they were offering to dismantle their various weapons-buildings programs, and we were offering them the billions of dollars they need to prop up their vicious regime. No one ever pretended that anything else was happening. Despite hopes to the contrary, a decade's worth of negotiations with North Korea have produced no changes in the regime whatsoever.

But if we were talking about the new American foreign policy, in the new, post-9/11 world, then North Korea does also deserve to be placed center stage. While in no way connected to Iran, Iraq, or al-Qaida (who are not exactly connected to one another either), North Korea does represent the kind of regime that the United States, post-9/11, most needs to worry about, and least needs to support. If nothing else, the attack on the World Trade Center proved how much damage can be done to the American economy and the American psyche using tiny amounts of money and small numbers of fanatics. North Korea, while probably too weird and isolated to inspire even small numbers of fanatics, is quite keen to sell weapons to them, for relatively tiny amounts of money, and has done so in the past.

Finally, calling North Korea "evil" in a heavily publicized speech doesn't really change American policy toward North Korea either. Negotiations with Pyongyang stalled in the final months of the Clinton administration. They weren't ever likely to get much further under the Bush administration, which was worried both by North Korea's queasiness about weapons inspections and by the morality of paying large bribes to such an unpleasant group of people. Many had already quietly concluded that it was better to wait: There was no point in continuing the negotiations until North Korea showed some sign of genuine internal change or external cooperativeness. Should such change take place, throwing around insults won't have done any long-term damage. Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union evil, too—and then started negotiating again, when Mikhail Gorbachev proved to be a different sort of Soviet leader.

All of which is part of why we should resist, albeit politely, South Korea's call for quieter rhetoric and a resumption of negotiations next week. South Korea is our close ally and should be treated as such. But it is possible to have policy differences with close allies, and in the case of North Korea, the policy differences might even be useful. For the better part of a decade, North Korea has met with a more or less unified U.S.-South Korean policy. Now the leadership is confronted with a choice: Deal with the Bush administration, which says you are evil, or deal with South Korea, which doesn't.

If that's confusing, so be it: Let the North Korean elite squabble among themselves, or plot behind one another's backs, or waste their time trying to cause trouble between America and South Korea, as the Soviet regime once wasted time causing trouble between America and Europe. If that leads the North Koreans to prefer the South Koreans, fine: More contact with the South can hardly do much damage to the North. If nothing happens—well, nothing was happening anyway. It's hard to see how speaking the truth, in this case, can make a bad relationship much worse.