It was predictable that the late-August six-party talks in Beijing over how to handle the North Korean nuclear crisis would fail to achieve substantive results.Hardliners will argue this proves that diplomacy with the Stalinist North Korean regime can’t work. In fact, what it really shows is that diplomacy hasn’t yet been tried. It is time we got serious about offering North Korea a tough but realistic proposal before the Hermit Kingdom develops an even larger nuclear arsenal and an even more desperate foreign policy.
Why was failure preordained? We insisted that North Korea give up the only thing it has of any real value — its nuclear programs — without offering anything tangible in return. And for their part, the North Koreans continued to use blackmail and bluster, including this time the threat to soon test a nuclear weapon, as their primary negotiating tactics.
At first blush, it is hard to criticize President Bush too severely. Preoccupied with other foreign policy challenges from Iraq to Afghanistan to Israel, his time for Northeast Asia is limited.Rightly indignant at how North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il treats his own people, and aware of North Korea’s extortionate tendencies, he refuses to give North Korea inducements to stop a nuclear program it should already have ended, according to the 1994 accord President Clinton signed.
But upon closer scrutiny, President Bush is making a big mistake. Iraq, Afghanistan, and Israel are indeed serious challenges, but North Korea is a full-blown crisis. That country has a broken economy juxtaposed with a gradually growing nuclear arsenal. It is too close to South Korea for U.S. armed forces to pre-empt with the relative strategic impunity we possessed during major combat operations in Iraq. And it is too likely to escalate the situation for patient diplomacy to be a viable strategy.
Faced with this dilemma, we need to think bigger. We must offer much more to North Korea, but demand far more in return, and couple our demands with economic and military threats should the situation not improve. This is the only way to break the logjam in negotiations without giving in to North Korean extortion or rewarding the DPRK for a nuclear program that it should have already abandoned.If negotiations fail this time around, we will then be much better positioned to convince our regional partners South Korea, Japan, China, and Russiathat more severe measures are needed.
Although the North Korean nuclear program poses the most acute threat to U.S. security, the underlying problem is North Korea’s failed economy—and its failed system of government more generally. We must address the latter, not just the nukes.Demanding major reforms as a condition for aidcan also get us out of the Catch-22 we now face, in which both sides insist on waiting for the other to take the first real move.
We have several possible solutions to the situation. One, try to induce regime change in North Korea using just economic and political instruments. Two, directly produce that regime change through U.S.-South Korean military action. Or three, use a combination of carrots, sticks and threats to try to convince North Korea to transform its own regime without resort to war or revolution — reverting to option one or two only if this approach fails.
Option one is far from ideal. We have been waiting for North Korea to collapse or reform on its own for a decade to no avail. If we try patience again, North Korea may let huge numbers of its own people starve—or even take a drastic step like carrying through on its threats and selling nuclear materials abroad.
The military option is one we may ultimately have to employ. But it is a very last resort. Pre-emptive air strikes against North Korea’s nuclear facilities at Yongbyon cannot eliminate the warheads and reprocessed plutonium North Korea already stores in places far removed from that Yongbyon complex. We could elect all-out war to overthrow the North Korean regime. But even if old Pentagon models predicting hundreds of thousands of deaths in any Korean conflict are obsolete, and if the new Rumsfeld way of war is capable of producing a much quicker and cleaner victory, tens of thousands of deaths would almost surely result.And North Korea might detonate or sell a nuclear weapon at that point, even if it had had no intention of doing so before.
That leaves the last option: diplomacy.But real diplomacy with a serious strategy. We need to push North Korea to reform its economy and even its political system in the way both China and Vietnam have done in recent decades.
This plan can only work if North Korea cuts deeply into its oversized conventional forces, which presently gobble up at least 20 percent of GDP. It can only work if Pyongyang invites Chinese economists and technicians into its country to teach its people how to carry out market reforms. It can only work if it also agrees to other steps such as verifiable elimination of its chemical weapons and ballistic missiles, an end to counterfeiting and drug trafficking, and a decision to let all Japanese kidnapping victims leave North Korea for good. And off course, the nuclear program must be quickly and verifiably frozen and then fully dismantled over time; North Korea’s energy demandsshould be addressed with conventional power plants rather than new nuclear reactors.
The plan can only work if the United States does its part, too.That means easing trade sanctions. It means contributing substantial aid resources, along with South Korea and Japan and China, to help North Korea develop its infrastructure. These efforts should start in the so-called special economic zones and then be broadened to include the rest of the country, as well as health and agricultural and education programs.The plan also requires a peace treaty and diplomatic relations among the region’s key countries in order to reassure private investors from South Korea and elsewhere that they should risk their money in a remote and reclusive land.
Even with all that, this approach may fail. North Korean leaders may prove too paranoid to accept such a plan; they may resort to provocative actions that prevent the plan from gaining momentum; they may really feel they need nuclear weapons in the face of a Bush administration espousing regime change and military preemption against the axis of evil. But if we try and fail, coercive policies may then become possible.South Korea and China, in particular, will have a much harder time dismissing them out of hand.
It is time to get serious about Korea.We must stop the absurdity of pretending that the North Korean situation is not a crisis. It is a crisis, and a major one at that. It is time the Bush administration started treating it with the gravity and seriousness it demands.
Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution.