It's time to talk to Pyongyang.

Military analysis.
June 26 2006 6:04 PM

It's Time To Talk to Pyongyang

Does North Korea want to launch a missile or start a conversation?

Kim Jong-il. Click image to expand.
Kim Jong-il

The hermit kingdom of Kim Jong-il has always sired odd political spectacles but few more startling than last week's Washington Post op-ed piece co-authored by William J. Perry—secretary of defense in the Clinton administration—urging President George W. Bush to attack North Korea's test site if Pyongyang continues its preparations to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile.

Even Vice President Dick Cheney was taken aback by Perry's proposal, dryly responding in a CNN interview: "I appreciate Bill's advice. … I think the issue is being addressed appropriately." National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley concurred: "We think diplomacy is the right answer, and that is what we're pursuing."

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All of which would be fine, end of story, if Bush, Cheney, and Hadley were pursuing diplomacy, but they're not. They're not doing anything—and haven't done anything for the past five and a half years—either to cool down or heat up the situation.

So, what is going on? Is North Korea planning to test an ICBM? If so, is it worth fretting about, much less launching our own pre-emptive strike? What is Perry's motive in recommending this course? And why doesn't Cheney of all people—the last true believer in pre-emptive strategies—think much of the idea?

Let's back up a bit. In August 1998, the North Koreans fired a Taepodong I missile over Japanese territory without issuing the customary prior notice. The whole region was outraged. But the Clinton administration was in the process of negotiating with Kim's regime—about a ban on missile technology, as it happened—so, it was quite natural to start talking about this test. One year later, they negotiated a deal whereby North Korea would not test any more missiles for as long as the talks continued.

Clinton never concluded an accord on North Korean missiles; he spent his last months in office chasing an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty. When Bush entered the White House, one of his first tasks was to shut down the Pyongyang talks. (The official line became: We don't negotiate with evil; we defeat it.)

At the end of 2002, the North Koreans resumed production of plutonium (which they'd halted since signing an accord with Clinton in 1994). But they also announced that they were unilaterally extending the moratorium on missile testing.

In March 2005, they called off the moratorium. The Bush administration responded in its customary manner: It did nothing. Now, 15 months later, the North Koreans seem to be preparing a missile test, and President Bush is shocked, shocked.

"North Koreans have made agreements with us in the past, and we expect them to keep their agreements—for example agreements on test launches," Bush said last week in Vienna.

Well, no. The agreement on test launches that the North Koreans made "with us" expired when Bush canceled the missile talks during his first week in office. What the North Koreans are doing now is simply backing out of a unilateral moratorium—and one that they proclaimed they were backing out of more than a year ago. Bush had plenty of time to do something about it, but he didn't want to.

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