North Korea is now a bigger deal than Iraq.

North Korea is now a bigger deal than Iraq.

North Korea is now a bigger deal than Iraq.

Military analysis.
April 21 2003 6:57 PM

Blink Blink

North Korean negotiations are now a bigger deal than Iraq.

Now that Saddam has fallen, the Bush administration turns its gaze once more to North Korea. What happens in that country over the next few weeks could have greater consequence—and provide more telling clues about the direction of U.S. foreign policy—than the events, over the same stretch of time, in post-war Iraq.

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This week, the long-awaited negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang—over how much the former will pay for the latter to stop building nuclear weapons—finally get under way. The New York Times editorial page overstated the case last week, when its top headline blared "North Korea Blinks," suggesting that the country's dictator, Kim Jong-il, had dropped his prior conditions for coming to the bargaining table after witnessing the U.S. military's swift toppling of Saddam Hussein, his fellow member in Bush's "axis of evil" club.

The outcome of Gulf War II may have weighed on Kim's mind to some degree, but many other factors were probably more decisive. First, about a week before the talks were announced, China, North Korea's neighbor and most vital supplier of natural resources, cut off its oil pipeline for a few days. Chinese officials publicly said the stoppage was due to technical problems, but the move was probably intended—and no doubt understood—as a message that Beijing, which had once feigned indifference to Kim's nuclear brinkmanship, was now very actively concerned.

Equally, if not more, important, the Bush administration made a dramatic concession to jump-start this diplomacy. Before Gulf War II, Kim was insisting on direct, "knee-to-knee" negotiations between the United States and North Korea, while Bush was insisting that any talks must be multilateral, involving not just the two countries but also China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan. This week's talks, to take place in Beijing, will involve only the United States, North Korea, and China; and there is some reason to think that China will be more a mediator, even a facilitator, than a participant. Both sides compromised, but it appears that the United States took the far bigger step back.

Both sides have clear motives to settle this crisis diplomatically. The question to be answered in the coming weeks is whether they also have the desire.

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First, a quick recap. Last October, North Korea's deputy foreign minister admitted, after a U.S. envoy presented him with evidence, that the country had indeed secretly restarted its nuclear weapons program. This program had been suspended since 1995, when Bill Clinton and Kim Il-Sung (Kim Jong-il's father, who subsequently died and left the reins to his son) negotiated an "Agreed Framework." North Korea would reaffirm its commitment to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (which it had threatened to abrogate), and would let inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency monitor its nuclear facilities. In return, the United States would provide North Korea with two light-water reactors (which can produce electrical power but not nuclear bombs) and other economic assistance. This deal started to fall apart late in Clinton's administration and came completely undone under Bush. Last December, North Korea threatened to abandon the Non-Proliferation Treaty, sent the IAEA inspectors packing, unlocked the seals on its fuel rods, and very visibly moved them from their storage pond to the nearby reactor, where they could be reprocessed into plutonium, the key ingredient in a nuclear bomb. Western experts estimated North Korea could have a bomb by June 2003 and a half-dozen more by the end of the year.

This was an exact replay of North Korea's moves that led up to the Clinton accord of '94, and there is much evidence to indicate that Kim Jong-il's motives were the same as his father's had been—to play the nuclear card (the only card that this woefully impoverished and miserably ruled country possesses) in order to extract economic concessions from the United States. In January, North Korean emissaries lined up a meeting with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, hoping that he might facilitate an agreement—just as, in '93, ex-President Jimmy Carter went to Pyongyang to hammer out the basics of the Agreed Framework. But Bush didn't respond; he proclaimed that even meeting with the North Koreans on a bilateral basis would reward their bad behavior and constitute "appeasement." The problem with this view was that, even though Kim resumed his nuclear program chiefly as a bargaining chip, he would likely go all the way if the United States refused to bargain. Nuclear weapons might deter a U.S. attack (which Kim had, and possibly still has, some reason to fear). Worse, Kim could sell nukes to the highest bidder. Some State Department officials urged Bush, to little avail, to address the crisis urgently. Then came the Iraqi war, which sucked up everyone's time and energy.

Now we're back to step zero. For some reason, the North Koreans, while they've moved the fuel rods out of storage, haven't yet started to reprocess plutonium (or so they say). And Bush is at least checking out the possibility of negotiation. How the crisis plays out will shape the answer to three broader questions.

First, howis the United States going to deal with the issue of nuclear proliferation? Bush dealt with the (hypothesized) threat of a nuclear-destined Iraq by invading the country and changing the regime. As yet, no evidence of a nuclear program has been excavated from the rubble. The 3rd Infantry may not be a universal solvent, in any event. While saber-rattling may intimidate some would-be nuclear powers, it may impel others to accelerate their programs as a deterrent to U.S. attack. (Along these lines, Pyongyang issued a statement last Friday: "The Iraq war teaches a lesson that in order to prevent a war and defend the security of a country and the sovereignty of a nation, it is necessary to have a powerful physical deterrent.")

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The nuclear genie is likely to be more, not less, active in the coming years, and for reasons antedating Gulf War II. In the 1960s, many futurologists predicted that 20 or 30 countries would have the bomb by the end of the decade. This forecast didn't come close to being true because the two nuclear superpowers, the United States and the USSR, maintained what was called a "nuclear umbrella" over their respective allies, assuring them assistance, even nuclear assistance, in the event of an attack. Some countries, which might have been tempted to go nuclear, held back. Now that the Soviet Union is gone and neither the United States nor any other strong power can or will guarantee protection to every endangered regime, the motive for restraint is weakened. If North Korea goes nuclear in a serious way, Japan is likely to follow, which will compel China to boost its nuclear arsenal, which will put pressure on India to follow suit, which will make Pakistan very nervous, and on and on it goes.

In other words, whether the United States succeeds in stemming North Korea's nuclear ambitions, and how it does so, could have far-reaching effects on this geopolitical chain reaction.

Second, what kind of image is the United States going to project to the world? Gulf War II demonstrated that the U.S. military is even stronger than many had believed; it is unchallengeable, possibly unbeatable. And the war demonstrated that the current president has few compunctions about throwing his military into action, even in the face of widespread protest. Given this new reality, will the United States behave like many empires of the past and flaunt its power, threatening to turn every dispute into a conflict, every conflict into a war? Or will it use the tacit possibility of force as a backdrop to a more creative, energetic, and when necessary aggressive brand of diplomacy? What happens in Syria will be one test-case (and it is at least intriguing that Bush is making hopeful noises about a diplomatic solution there); what happens in North Korea will be another.

Third, howwill the balance of power evolve within the Bush administration? Secretary of State Colin Powell's status has been deeply wounded by Gulf War II. His diplomatic mission to avoid war through the United Nations failed (regardless of whether this was his fault). Even his military wisdom as a retired general—the "Powell doctrine," which demanded that the United States should go to war only with "overwhelming force"—was proved wrong in the new age of smart bombs, Predator drones, and more agile and flexible ground forces. The New York Times reports today that Powell's upwardly mobile rival, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, has circulated a memo arguing that Bush should press for regime change in North Korea rather than negotiate some deal that might strengthen Pyongyang's economy. Which faction wins this contest will shape the answers to the two previous questions.

The shame of this situation is that North Korea is the last country on earth where you would want to set a precedent or test a general proposition. Kim Jong-il is more than a little flaky—he is deliberately deceptive; he and his father have displayed a consistent negotiating style (brilliantly described in Scott Snyder's book Negotiating on the Edge). It is designed to irritate, madden, and continuously test and probe their adversaries. It requires enormous patience, a commodity that the Bush administration not only lacks but has no great eagerness to acquire. In Bush's defense, it is also a commodity that in the current crisis, we cannot really afford. If North Korea hasn't yet reprocessed those fuel rods, it is on the verge of doing so. This stand-off cannot persist for months and months. It is not reassuring that Rumsfeld has attack planes in South Korea, as well as B-1 and B-52 bombers in Guam, awaiting orders to take off if the reprocessing commences and no diplomatic solution appears. By the same token, North Korea has several thousand artillery tubes stationed near the South Korean border, 500 of them a mere five minutes' flight time from downtown Seoul. The stakes of this game, in the short term and the long term, could hardly be more serious.