On Oct. 18, 1962, the third day of the Cuban Missile Crisis, President John F. Kennedy, sitting in the Cabinet room with his advisers, wondered aloud why Nikita Khrushchev had launched this adventure. He figured that it must be part of some bargaining scheme and that, to make him get rid of the missiles, we had to come up with some way of letting the Soviet leader save face, of "giving him some out." It would be good to know if anyone inside President Bush's White House is thinking along similar lines in the current crisis—or, as Secretary of State Colin Powell prefers to call it, "serious situation"—with North Korea. True, this is not the Cuban Missile Crisis; Kim Jong-il is not Nikita Khrushchev; North Korea is not the U.S.S.R. Still, few would dispute that Kim's latest outrageous move—which will have him churning out A-bombs by the dozen in six months' time, unless something is done stop him—amounts to a desperate bargaining ploy, a time-tested way of frightening everyone around him (nukes!) and extorting them into giving him what he needs.
As any review of North Korea's diplomatic record would indicate, this is par for the course. From its very beginnings, North Korea has thrived—in many ways, has survived—on a diplomacy of permanent crisis: shrill invective, outlandish (but not quite incredible) threats, gross intimidation, and seemingly fearless brinkmanship. Korea, as one proverb has it, is a "shrimp among whales," and North Korea's rulers (there have been only two—Kim Jong-il and his father, Kim Il Sung) have been masters at the art of turning their own weakness into strength and their foes' strength into weakness. In the game of highway chicken, North Korea is the shrewd lunatic who very visibly throws his steering wheel out the window, forcing the other, more responsible driver to veer off the road. North Korea's long-chosen path of severe secrecy and isolation—Saddam Hussein's Iraq is practically a Western democracy by comparison—helps assure its success at this game. Neither its friends nor foes really know what the hell is going on inside the inner sanctum. Richard Nixon tried to intimidate North Vietnam by pretending to be a "madman." Kim Jong-il, at least by the standards of normal international relations, is a madman.
So, what is a country like the United States to do? On the one hand, as many Bush officials have noted, it's a bad idea in principle to pay off blackmailers. On the other hand, what choice do we have? Kim can sustain this crisis far longer than we can. First, his regime thrives on it. Second, he doesn't need to worry about domestic political groups or foreign allies because he doesn't have any. Third, if all else fails and the United States doesn't go along with his demands, he ends up with nukes, which he can use for further diplomatic games or sell and barter for much-needed currency, fuel, and food.
By contrast, look at our situation on each point. First, with the war on terrorism still brewing and a war with Iraq on the horizon, the last thing Bush needs is a nuclear stand-off in northern Asia. Second, South Korea has just elected a new president on a platform of friendlier relations with the North; Japan, China, and Russia aren't keen for confrontation, either; yet, in any successful counter-brinkmanship strategy, we would need the seamless support of all these players. Third, we really don't want North Korea to possess, or be able to pass around, a handful, much less a cargo-full, of nuclear weapons. Nor, alas, is the Osirak gambit much of an option. Unlike Iraq, when Israel bombed its nuclear reactor in 1981, North Korea is already believed to have a couple of nukes, and it definitely has 11,000 artillery tubes (and who knows how many reloadable shells) less than a minute's flight-time from downtown Seoul. The risk of retaliation—and endangering tens of thousands of South Korean citizens and American soldiers—is commonly regarded as too high.
In short, we have almost no means of leverage in this game, and we might as well face that fact while those spent fuel rods, though unlocked and unmonitored, are still in place.
What does North Korea say it wants from this adventure? A non-aggression pact with the United States (thus ending the 1950-53 war) and a resumption of our obligations under the 1994 Agreed Framework negotiated with President Clinton. The events leading up to that accord were similar to today's. North Korea removed the fuel rods from its experimental nuclear reactor and threatened to pull out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Partly as the result of an unauthorized visit to Kim Il Sung by ex-President Jimmy Carter, a settlement was reached whereby the United States would provide food, fuel, and a light water nuclear reactor (which cannot in any way be used to make a bomb) in exchange for North Korea's continued compliance with the treaty.
This arrangement, administered by a jerry-rigged but highly competent entity called the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, or KEDO (headed by a U.S. diplomat and staffed by Americans, Japanese, and South Koreans), worked well for a while and even helped relax regional tensions generally. It hit a big obstacle when a North Korean submarine wound up in South Korean waters. It started to unwind when President Bush, upon entering office, made clear he had no interest in continuing this entente. It fell apart altogether when Bush, in his post-9/11 address on terrorism, accused North Korea, Iran, and Iraq of forming an "axis of evil." It crumbled to bits last October when, after much probing and interrogation, American diplomats got North Korean officials to admit that they had restarted their nuclear program. In response, the United States stopped shipping fuel and food—to which North Korea replied by unsealing the fuel rods, disconnecting the IAEA's cameras and ordering the inspectors home.
Who's ultimately responsible for this breakdown is, in some ways, an academic question. Neither side can claim to be purely an innocent bystander or victim. But would it be so terrible—would it really be "appeasement," as many conservative commentators have thundered—to offer a resumption of KEDO, simultaneous with a resumption of North Korea's responsibilities under the Non-Proliferation Treaty? If Bush wants to take control of the negotiations, as opposed to letting Kim define the terms and then manipulate them, he could go further and offer a whole package of economic investments, tied not just to denuclearization but to a gradual opening of North Korean society—which, in the long run, would be in our interests.
In the longer run still, the United States—if not Bush, then whoever follows—must devise a nuclear proliferation policy, because North Korea, though unique in many ways, does point a scraggly finger toward the future. In the 1960s and '70s, many arms-control scholars warned that 20 or 30 countries would acquire nuclear weapons in the next decade. It didn't happen, not because those countries were unable to do so, but rather because the Cold War was an international security system. The United States and the U.S.S.R. each extended the deterrent of its nuclear arsenal to its circle of allies. With the U.S.S.R. vanquished, this "nuclear umbrella" has folded up as well, and it will become harder and harder to keep particularly insecure powers from building their own nukes—especially since, as North Korea is now demonstrating, you only need a few nukes to be suddenly taken seriously.