In the United States, the Korean conflict of 1950-1953 is often called the “forgotten war.” Of course it was never forgotten by the millions of Americans who participated in it, or their families, and especially not by the families of those who never came home.
But it did not receive the national attention of the world wars and, while much more successful than the ensuing Vietnam War, was never analyzed the same way. The Korean War was neither a brilliant success nor a defeat. And as active Cold War battlefields moved to Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa and parts of Latin America, the standoff that resulted from the 1953 Armistice did not command sustained attention from most Americans in the latter decades of the Cold War.
In modern times, Korea has been the forgotten nuclear crisis. Saddam Hussein’s suspected arsenals of a few years ago, and Iran’s potential arsenals of today, have received far more attention. When North Korea announced it would withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and expel nuclear inspectors back in 2002 - leading to an estimated quadrupling of its nuclear arsenal over the next two years - Colin Powell said the situation did not amount to a crisis. Somehow he got away with that badly incorrect comment. Today, the same kind of pattern persists. The Middle East continues to get the most nuclear-related attention from Americans. South Asia is second, and North Korea a distant third. This is true even now that we have learned that North Korea helped a number of countries, including Syria, with their own nuclear-related programs in recent times.
Alas this American tendency to forget Korea is happening in the 2008 presidential race. A review of Web sites, prominent foreign policy speeches and articles, and press releases by Sen. John McCain as well as Sen. Barack Obama reveals little in the way of attention to this crucial part of the world.
Here is what we do know. Mr. Obama favors diplomacy in general, and is willing to engage with tough actors like those in Pyongyang. And he accordingly supports the six-party talks. But he makes no mention of the broader incentives he would offer North Korea — or the leverage he would try to develop against it — in such talks.
Since the negotiations are bogging down a bit now, and since there is no clear next step even if they get back on track, this is regrettable. Simply trusting the diplomatic skills of Assistant Secretary Chris Hill and his foreign counterparts does not amount to a strategy.
Sen. John McCain also supports the six-party talks. However his long historical record on dealing with North Korea, including discussion of military options against it during the 1994 nuclear crisis, makes one suspect he would have less patience in future negotiations if North Korea were to continue to throw up roadblocks during the negotiations.
That is realistic in one sense. But it also begs the question of what to do if North Korea does in fact refuse to move forward. Especially with Kim Jong-il’s apparent illness, we have to assume North Korea may not continue negotiating smoothly. Moreover, President Bush’s first term demonstrated that a hard-line policy toward North Korea, however well-motivated and morally justified, does not guarantee results. If it fails to engender support from Seoul and Beijing in particular, as well as Moscow, any American effort to place more pressure on Pyongyang is likely to fail - and create an opportunity for wily North Korean negotiators to exploit the gap between hard-liners in Tokyo and Washington on the one hand with relative doves in Seoul, Beijing, and Moscow on the other.
We are in a dilemma. To provide North Korea lots of generous benefits and favorable treatment now risks appeasing Pyongyang after it has violated so many nuclear accords. Yet to refuse adamantly to consider a better relationship gives North Korea little reason to budge on the nuclear question. We are damned if we do and damned if we don’t.
We are also facing a short-term, immediate dilemma in the talks. The United States pledged to remove North Korea from its terrorism watch list after North Korea destroyed a cooling tower at its nuclear complex several months ago. But now things have changed. Apparently we do not want to remove North Korea from that terrorism list because we have learned more about its illicit relationships with countries like Libya and Syria, which involved North Korean nuclear help for those regimes at times when they were supporting international terrorism.
What to do?
(1) First, our presidential candidates need to talk more about Korea. It is after all one of the world’s two or three top nuclear crises. They need to show they think about the problem and are familiar with basic information about it.
(2) Our candidates in the United States need to show some understanding for the dilemma we face in dealing with the North. Neither Mr. Obama’s reflexive openness to talk, nor Mr. McCain’s reflexive reliance on resolve and strength, are likely to suffice as policies.
(3) Both candidates therefore need to give some indications they have thought about a strategy for dealing with North Korea beyond the next few months of what Chris Hill might attempt. I believe the right way to proceed is to offer North Korea a clear choice - a roadmap to much improved economic and political relations if it gives up nuclear weapons and makes gradual reforms in its conventional military, its economy and, yes, its human rights behavior. This might be called the Vietnam model; that is the country we should want North Korea to emulate.
The same roadmap, however, would indicate that Washington does not have indefinite patience with a Stalinist regime violating its solemn nuclear obligations and aiding dangerous regimes around the world with their nuclear ambitions. If the positive vision fails, we should work hard with Seoul and Beijing to reduce economic and diplomatic interaction with North Korea until the situation improves. Perhaps if they see we are trying to be cooperative, and offer a positive roadmap, Seoul and Beijing (and Moscow) would be more willing to get tough on North Korea if need be.
But if this is not the right plan for Mr. Obama or Mr. McCain, let’s hear what they do prefer. One thing is clear: We cannot ignore this crisis any longer, or allow another new U.S. administration to assign it to a third or fourth priority in American national security policy.
Michael O’Hanlon is senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
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